White will continue her journey as she cycles around historic Concord with 50 disabled veterans and about 400 other riders in a display of how camaraderie, competition, and compassion can salve both body and soul. "When you're in a bike, you're free, you're outside, and it's liberating," said White, 39, who will use a three-wheel bike that allows her to sit back and pedal. "I never thought I'd be in the place I am now."
She credits the psychological and physical benefits of cycling events for her chance to mingle with veterans from around the country who not only share the language of war, but who also understand where their disabilities have taken them and where these veterans want to go.
Some of the veterans are amputees, some have post-traumatic stress disorder, and others, like White, suffer from the long-term effects of serious brain injuries. "We'll never be who we were, and that's the scary thing," White said. "You have to invent your whole life from scratch. I'm trying to find my way now."
For Chris Loiselle, an Air Force special operations veteran from Chelmsford, Massachusetts the ride is a milestone in his long struggle with post-traumatic stress. "This whole trip is just a bunch of people who are going through, and have been through, what I'm dealing with," said Loiselle, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. "It's just great camaraderie that I've been missing. I've found my brothers; I'll say it like that."
Over the last several years, the 35-year-old had found that even routine activities such as shopping or going to the movies were a struggle. Anxiety attacks and depression haunted him. For much of that time, medication helped. But beginning this year, Loiselle gravitated toward exercise and healthy eating as therapy. "This is huge," Loiselle said of the fellowship he has enjoyed with other veterans. "You have that every day when you're active and you're in the service. But when I got out, it just stopped, and that alone is hard on you mentally and emotionally."
White, like Loiselle, sees a new world opening up. She knows her life will never be the same, but she has found direction in activities sponsored by groups and the sports program at the veterans medical center in Brockton. "We have no normal," White said. "I don't know where I fit yet, but I think I fit here for now. I wasn't in society at all. I didn't do anything. Now, I owe my life to them.
Dr. Kenneth Lee is chief of the spinal cord injury division at the Milwaukee VA and an associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Lee took part in a clinic, which took place at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee. It was one in a series designed to help 30 veterans who were unable to ride a two-wheeled bike because of spinal cord injury, spinal cord disease, or other disability. "A lot of our veterans utilize the handcycling clinic as a springboard to get their life back in order. I see that in many of my patients," Lee said. "It gives them the idea that they can do it; the current theme now is ability over disability, and that’s what we’re trying to point out with these handcycling clinics," Lee said, "as there are so many veterans out there who think they can’t do things. I wanted to put something together to prove they could"
Veteran participants were sized and fit for the appropriate handcycle and then set out for a ride on the Hank Aaron Trail, a state trail named in honor of the baseball legend that connects Milwaukee’s Miller Park Stadium to the Lake Michigan lakefront.
Bill Czyzewski has found a niche that is a win-win for more than a few parts of his life and for others.
Two years ago, he met Steve Miller at the Air Show in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Miller told him about a bicycle that he bought. Miller was an amputee. Czyzewski, who is also an amputee and a veteran, looked into the program at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, where he has been going since 1977.
That was the year that Czyzewski decided to have the operation that took away the vestige of his leg below the knee. The limb had deteriorated due to a reduced flow of blood after he was wounded in Vietnam seven years earlier.
On March 1, 1970, while serving with the 11th Armored Cavalry, Czyzewski was shot in the upper leg. The wound damaged the leg's circulation system. He struggled with the leg until making a choice to have the medical procedure which the medical staff said saved his life. Blood clots had formed in the leg; had the clots dislodged, they could have ended his life.
Since that time, Czyzewski has received a prosthetic leg that allows him to walk and lead a normal life. It had limited his ability to exercise, and that is where his meeting with Miller came into play.
The VAMC staff met his inquiry for the bicycle with enthusiasm. They linked him up first with a loaner bike they had called the blue hand cycle. Czyzewski was shown how to ride using his arms to drive the gears. He started out trying to do six to twelve miles per day on the Musselman High School track.
The exercise was great, both for his arms and for his cardiovascular system.
"Before they let me do that, I had to pass a stress test first," he said.
Then they recommended that he get a bike of his own.
Czyzewski related how excited he was as he trained for a cross-country event that Miller had told him about called the "Sea to Shining Sea." He had gone to the website for the race and got in touch with organizers, deciding to meet with participants when they reached Cumberland, Maryland.
It was there that he met Paul Bremer, who is now the CEO for that event and others held by World T.E.A.M. (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports, the nonprofit organization which runs the events in order to benefit disabled veterans. Bremer quickly invited Czyzewski to join them at the next rally point in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
"The problem was that I had been training on a flat track," he said, "and the race course had hills." When Czyzewski was barely able to make it up the hills, others came to his aid and helped to push him when he needed it. "I felt like I was just holding everybody back," he recalled, but Bremer urged him on, explaining that the last eight miles of the race only had a couple easy hills and they wanted him to finish with them. "How can I explain the camaraderie that these guys have?" he said. "There was an Army guy and a Navy guy that came up on either side of me that day." Czyzewski went on to describe how they helped him up the first three hills - and when they got to the final hill at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, they knew Czyzewski could take it on his own. "I made it!" he said.
Today, Czyzewski is busy preparing for an upcoming ride from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg, Pa. The ride, known as "Face of America," is one of five series hosted by World T.E.A.M. Sports. This one will be April 16-17, "held to honor and assist our military - disabled, veterans and active duty - and the true American Spirit."
Anyone interested can visit the nonprofit's website at www.worldteamsports.org to find out more about this race and others.
He went on to say that if he could help just one disabled vet find the freedom that he has found by being a part of this movement, "it would wonderful."
Czyzewski is just a man who did his part when his country asked him to. Now he wants to help others who have done their part, dedicating his ride to the members of the 11th Armored Cavalry, to soldiers who were prisoners or missing in action and to the wounded warriors from conflicts of today.