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The Long Road Home: Bikers bring attention to issues facing returning war veterans

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By Stephen Thomas

 CLERMONT - For many military veterans, the journey home means a longer than expected recovery more than it means returning.

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Many veterans bring home extra baggage in the forms of physical or mental disabilities due to a wide variety of stress-related reasons.

Bullitt County was located along the road for a handful of veterans now raising awareness of such issues as part of The Long Road Home Project.

In its initial year, The Long Road Home Project consists of a 90-day bicycle ride across the country, completed by wounded veterans with various personal issues.

The veterans are riding 4,000 miles through 12 states, beginning in Aberdeen, Washington, and completing the journey in Washington, DC.

Along the way the veterans are raising funds for themselves as well as Operation First Response (www.operationfirstresponse.org), a non-profit agency assisting wounded veterans with financial needs.

Founded by civilian Casey Miller, The Long Road Home Project was created because the sport has become an outlet of both physical and mental therapy for wounded veterans.

The Long Road Home Project bike trek began with five veterans, all of whom are helping the primary cause while also seeking awareness of personal issues.

The 90-day journey brought the veterans to Shepherdsville for an overnight stay at the KOA Campgrounds. The next morning they received free tours of Forest Edge Winery and Jim Beam in Clermont before heading to other stops along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

"I've faced it all, and I've stood tall..."

SSG Ryan Creel was among the few who literally saw much of the trauma associated with military battle, serving six years of his Army career as a combat photographer primarily with Special Forces.

Creel was active during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, also deployed in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Balkans. He was medically retired after 13 years, diagnosed with chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Creel's Long Road Home participation began in 2010 when he first took up cycling.

"It's been a therapy for me," he admitted, "It's done more for me personally than anything else as far as therapy. For me everything else just floats away. I get tired of talking to psychiatrists. I get more out of talking to other veterans and riding a bike."

Creel said riding, along with his other favorite hobby of fly fishing, made for great therapy both solo and with groups of fellow veterans, which helps during The Long Road Home Project.

"When you're done deploying you're all in the same boat," he said. "Life becomes a little less interesting, per se. I had a lot of friends that died on the range, but some also died here."

Creel noted while speaking with numerous veterans along the journey that he noticed Post-Traumatic Stress has always been around in some form for American soldiers.

"After World War II there was a lot of PTS but it was pushed to the side," he said. "During the Civil War they called it Soldier's Heart. In World War I it was shell shock. Now it's PTS. A lot of it's still the same when you talk to these guys."

One of the primary benefits of cycling for Creel, and for other veterans, is keeping fit and avoiding medication. He said physical therapy via bicycle has become popular for veterans in the past five years.

Creel was pleased to ride now as a fundraising opportunity for Operation First Response.

"It helps bridge the gaps while you wait on your benefits," he said. "Some wait over a year for benefits. It took me nine months."

Eventually Creel hopes to become a full-time volunteer and advocate for The Long Ride Home Project and many other similar programs such as Ride to Recovery, Sea to Shining Sea and the Challenge Athletic Foundation.

"No matter what sort of injury you receive downrange you can get on a bike," he said. "We have a lot of amputees. One rider is a quad-amputee, his bike is engineered around him, he rides upright. Blind veterans are riding on tandem bikes. We trust each other more than anybody."

Most of all Creel hopes veterans can find cycling to be personally therapeutic the way it has been for him.

"Find a new purpose in life," he said.

"Like a rainbow in the dark..."

Colleen Bushnell is retired from the Air Force, a veteran of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Her personal version of PTSD from the military doesn't involve battle-related stress.

Bushnell became a rape and abuse victim, leading to her own brand of trauma and an eventual medical retirement from the military. She suffered from PTSD and depression, became suicidal and at one point was homeless.

Along with The Long Road Home Project, Bushnell rides as a member of Protect Our Defenders (www.protectourdefenders.com), a program that assists survivors of military sexual assault.

"You go from surviving to thriving after a tragedy," she said. "You become an advocate for change."

Bushnell began cycling in 2011 while in personal crisis.

"It was really an act of me trying to turn my skills around," she said. "I've gotten better since day one."

The recent trip helped Bushnell learn to practice taking care of herself.

"It's been surprising," she said. "This has brought up a lot of emotions, a lot of triggers for me. Like any problem, I am learning to confront it. I'm learning a new normal."

Bushnell is a recipient of the Global War on Terrorism and  the National Defense Service medals. Her reward now is raising awareness of PTSD along with awareness of women in the military and single-parent veterans.

"I've got two strong arms, let me help..."

Steve Taylor is proud of his 26 years experience with the Air Force. He was originally drafted in 1971, serving stateside during the last years of the Vietnam War.

Taylor's tenure includes active duty in the Gulf War in 1990, along with the Noriega Conflict in Panama in 1982. He also served in Saudi Arabia and Iraq as recently as 2002.

In 2004 Taylor became paralyzed, eventually diagnosed with a neurological disorder affecting primarily his legs, as well as his hands and arms.

Taylor began riding as a form of physical therapy to strengthen his limbs. He rides today as a hand cyclist, pedaling cross-country using his arms on a specially-designed three-wheeled cycle donated by the VA.

Turning 60 this year, Taylor rides to increase PTSD awareness as well as offering positive support to the disabled.

"We all suffer from PTSD, you just have to force yourself to do stuff," he said. "Last year I raced with pros and attended several Olympics camps. Basically I want to show people you can be disabled and still do things."

Taylor admitted he found his own role model in Nelson Baker, a 76-year-old Vietnam-era Marine, who the group met during The Long Road Home Project. Baker decided to join up and ride alongside the veterans for much of the journey.

Taylor's two goals during the trip start with talking to active duty military about PTSD issues. The other goal is preparing for the end of the trip in Washington, DC, where the riders will participate in a special candlelight vigil.

For the vigil, Taylor is collecting names of relatives killed or wounded in Iraq as he meets their families and friends during the bike trek.

"It's hard to talk to families, but it's something I want to do," he said. "I think it helps them. This just gives back a little that way. It makes the world a little bit better."

Other veterans participating in The Long Road Home Project include Marie Tracy, a veteran of Afghanistan serving as a logistics advisor. The six-year veteran is also raising awareness for gay Americans serving in the military in lieu of the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.

Glenn Fretz, a retired Army veteran who served during Desert Storm, earned the Army Service Ribbon and the National Defense Service Medal. Also a hand cyclist, Fretz was paralyzed in 1994 following an accident.

For more information on The Long Road Home Project, or to make a donation, visit longroadhomeproject.com.

The Long Road Home Project is sponsored by Team Red, White, and Blue (www.teamrwb.org), dedicated to helping wounded veterans integrate into society upon combat return.