Our very own extraordinary cyclist, great bike traveler, European correspondent, and writer, John Murphy recommends this ride to honor wounded veterans. John has participated in this ride for several years and this should be on your calendar for April. John wrote the article below giving incite into the ride and several of the wounded veterans he rode with.
Even if you don’t cycle, it is worth your while to read this.
FROM BAGHDAD TO GETTYSBURG
As we slip into the depths of winter and the forced inactivity that goes along with it, there is no better time to think about new rides in 2014. There are a wide array of local rides to choose from including the City to Shore Ride, the Tour de Cure and the American Cancer Society Ride. However, if you are thinking about adding a new charity ride a bit further afield, there is no better choice or cause than the Face of America Ride that runs from the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia to the battlefields of Gettysburg April 25- 27 of this year.
The Face of America ride is a charity event sponsored by World TEAM Sports. The organization has been sponsoring sporting and recreational programs for the disabled since 1993. The programs include cycling, hiking, skiing, mountain climbing and various water activities. However, over the last decade, the organization has shifted much of its focus to working with wounded veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last spring, over 100 wounded veterans, many of them riding hand cycles, participated in the 2013 Face of America ride.
The 2013 ride was led by Colonel Gregory Gadson of the United States Army. Gadson attended West Point and was the co-captain of its football team in the mid-1980’s. He later served as an artillery officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On a dark evening in 2006, Gadson was returning from a memorial service for fallen comrades in his unit when his vehicle was destroyed by an IED. He lost both of his legs to the hip and his right arm was severely damaged.
After multiple operations and extended rehabilitation, Colonel Gadson returned to active duty and now serves as the Commandant of Fort Belvoir. He is also a motivational speaker and had a supporting role in the movie Battleship. Notwithstanding his injuries, Colonel Gadson rode a hand-cycle the entire 110 miles to Gettysburg at the front of the ride. He entered Gettysburg surrounded by fellow active duty members of each of the services as hundreds of cheering spectators welcomed him to Gettysburg. Further back in the pack was former pro cyclist Tyler Hamilton wearing baggy socks and sneakers who served as an honorary sponsor of the ride.
The Face of America ride is limited to approximately 500 riders. The event begins Friday evening at the Doubletree Hotel in Arlington, Virginia with a welcoming dinner that includes keynote speakers such as Colonel Gadson and recently retired Marine General James Mattis who led the Marine force in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This year’s dinner speakers included a group of Canadian veterans who served along side American forces in Afghanistan and engage in similar fund-raising activities for wounded veterans in their own country.
The ride begins early Saturday morning several blocks from the Pentagon. We wind our way slowly past Arlington National Cemetery. We pedal through portions of Washington and begin heading north through Potomac and other affluent Maryland suburban communities. The speed of the ride is carefully controlled by a lead vehicle and typically ranges between 16 to 20 miles per hour at the front and a good deal less further back in the line which spreads out soon after the ride begins. The skill levels of the riders range from expert to beginner and every level in between. The topography from Arlington to Gettysburg is generally rolling with relatively short, modest climbs. The gradients are typically no more than 2 to 5 per cent given the significant number of hand cyclists participating in the ride. By way of comparison, this ride is far less taxing than our Hilly Philly ride or the Covered Bridge ride in Bucks Coun
Periodic rest stops mark our route north. Local residents welcome us at each rest stop with cheering and signs welcoming the riders. Our hosts include local veterans, cub scouts and volunteer fire companies who are welcome the wounded warriors passing through their communities. At one rest stop late Saturday morning, I am talking to Colonel Gadson when a mother approaches with her timid four year old son in tow. Her son knows nothing about Colonel Gadson’s combat service or the circumstances of his injuries. He wants to meet the actor he enjoyed seeing in Battleship.
Our first day of riding ends 60 miles north when we pull into historic Frederick, Maryland where General George Meade learned he had been appointed commander of the Union forces that would collide with Confederate forces three short days later at the crossroads town of Gettysburg. Saturday evening is spent in local sports bars and restaurants meeting fellow riders, including active and retired military men and women from all branches of the service. Phil recently retired as a sergeant from the Marine
Corps and speaks of his six tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although he survived these tours with no physical injuries, the stories he tells and his weary eyes speak of psychological wounds that can only be felt rather than seen. I also meet Rear Admiral Margaret Kibben who serves as lead Chaplain for the Marine Corps and a group of outgoing Canadian army veterans who served as bomb disposal experts in Afghanistan along side American forces.
We leave Frederick early Sunday morning and head north into the rolling hills of northern Maryland past horse and cattle farms. This is the most beautiful and peaceful portion of the ride. The sun is up, the early spring air is fresh and the only sounds to be heard are the measured breathing and muffled conversations of fellow cyclists moving steadily towards their final destination. Several hours later we cross an unmarked border into Pennsylvania traveling the same route that Union forces followed on their way to join battle with southern forces just miles up this road. We are greeted by hundreds of local residents for lunch at the local volunteer fire company.
We gather after lunch for the final ten mile ride into Gettysburg. Large cycling groups require special permission to ride through the National Military Park. We break into groups of 25 to 30 riders for the ride across the battlefield. We pass through the outskirts of Gettysburg and quietly pedal into the park with our pace vehicle and Colonel Gadson leading the way. We ride along the eastern portion of the battlefield. To our left is a wooded hill which I recognize as Little Round Top where the 2oth Maine Infantry Regiment held off a series of desperate charges designed to break through the left flank of the Union lines 150 years ago.
As we ride on, we approach a group of tourists standing atop a monument honoring the Union war dead. They hear our lead vehicle and the phalanx of riders approaching and turn our way. Seeing our signs and the dozens of paralyzed and wounded veterans and active servicemen in our midst they realize they are looking at today’s American heroes who have sacrificed every bit as much as their predecessors who are honored on this hallowed battlefield. The tourists all turn our way and stand respectfully at quiet attention. As the riders acknowledge the crowd, some break into polite applause. Others appear to be wiping tears from their eyes.
We turn left and begin riding across the northern edge of the battlefield. We cross the line held by Confederate forces on July 3, 1863 moments before they launched the attack now remembered as Pickett’s Charge. We soon turn north and head toward our finishing point at Garrahy’s farm. The farm belonged to former Marine Corporal and local businessman Seamus Garrahy who hosted the finish of the Face of America Ride for five years before his death in 2012. As we approach the farm, we are greeted by hundreds of cheering spectators and Junior ROTC cadets. We are also greeted by dozens of local Marine reservists from Frederick and Harrisburg who have brought their armored vehicles and weapons for display. After a lunch of steak and beer, we pack our bikes onto waiting trucks and head back to Arlington by bus. We part in Arlington with promises to meet again this same time this year.
If you are interested in signing up for the 2014 ride, go to the 2014 Face of America website for event information and registration. In addition to the traditional ride from the Pentagon, riders can also choose to do one or two day rides that begin and end in Gettysburg. Whichever route you choose, you will encounter beautiful scenery, new friends and memories that inspire. If we generate sufficient interest in the ride, we can likely coordinate our travel arrangements to and from Arlington.