Members of the Cadiz American Legion welcome a convoy of veterans on a cross country bicycling ride. Charlie Strizak, Phil Madzia, Jay Kolenc, William ‘Lump’ Jackson. Scott Bilyeu, Marc Espisito, Matt Kuhn, film intern. NH Photo/ ROBERT A. DEFRANK

By ROBERT A. DEFRANK                                                                                                                     News-Herald Staff Writer

CADIZ – A convoy of nearly 20 veterans recovering from injuries taken defending this nation stopped in town July 13 to demonstrate the power of the human spirit during the Sea to Shining Sea cross country tour.

The ride spans 63 days and covers 4,000 miles. Many of the veterans participating are missing limbs and are riding modified bicycles. The cyclists represent all branches of the military.

The Cadiz American Legion was one of their stops. A welcoming committee including residents, almost 20 Legion members, and Veterans Service Officer David Rose turned out to meet them. The highway patrol, sheriff’s deputies and American Legion Riders, police and fire departments did escort duty. “This trip has been excellent,” said Air Force Staff Sgt Scott Espisito, a native of Boardman, Ohio. As a combat controller for the Air Force, Espisito was accompanying a special ops team in Afghanistan when their hummer encountered an IED. “Everything below my knees was destroyed,” he said, crediting the medic on site for the fact that he lived and kept his legs. He added that he had no heartbeat for a time and a high degree of physical fitness helped save his life. He said the aftermath saw him in a wheelchair with a broken back and missing most of his teeth. It was expected he would never completely regain his mobility. “Being a hard head, I decided to prove them wrong,” he said. “You learn in the military that exceeding the standard is the standard.” He sees the trek as both a step in his recovery and an opportunity to motivate other people who have undergone physical tragedies and inspire them to fight to reclaim their lives. He urges everyone who sees them not to lose hope or give up on therapy and rehab. “It’s going to get you back to a life you love,” he said, adding that determination will yield rewards in the face of high odds, as the 4,000-mile ride demonstrates. “Their minds can take them farther than they can possibly think.”

He said one especially powerful effect was the friendships riders forged in the shared backgrounds and experiences of the team. “We started out as a group of individuals,” he said. “Something happened. Throughout the ride it turned into a team thing.” He added that the riders were touched by the welcomes they have received. “There has been tons of patriotism,” he said. “It’s exactly what I would have expected. It makes the ride worth it. It makes going to war worth it.” He also thanks State Farm Insurance and TEAM Sports for making the event possible.

The hope to make a difference is shared by other riders. Air Force pilot Kevin Sullivan was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder after 400 back-to-back combat sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan in three deployments covering two and a half years. He hopes to raise awareness of mental illness and encourage others to take action. “There are other people out there like me. My story could help them,” he said. “If it could help just one person I’d do it.” He has spoken of his experiences throughout the ride. “It was helpful to have a supportive wife and family,” he said, asking family members to take note of a veteran’s behavior and warning signs such as mood swings and personality changes and encourage him or her to seek help. “It’s not a weakness. It takes a lot of courage to step forward and get help.” He thanks everyone who turned out to welcome the riders. “We appreciate the reception. It lets us know all our hours of peddling have not been in vain,” he said. “We’re reaching people.”

“Since we got into the heartland of the US, receptions have gotten bigger and bigger,” said Senior Airman Brian Petras. “This is one of the more patriotic towns we’ve been through.” Petras, who was diagnosed with a tumor that led to the amputation of a leg, said he originally joined the ride to test himself. “At first I got into the trip for rehab and to prove to the Air Force I can still fly,” he said, adding that he soon joined in the team spirit and saw the chance to motivate others. “If something happens and you come into a situation you can’t change, you can feel sorry for yourself or you can have a positive outlook. I chose a positive road and I don’t regret it.” For more information or to track the riders’ progress, go to NH Photos/ROBERT A. DEFRANK