Feature | Oct. 11, 2007

No Soldier left behind

By Mr. Dale Weaver Retired Air Force

Mr. Weaver retired from Langley as Major Weaver in 2004 where he served as the Air Force Command, Control, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center's chief of combat search and rescue. After working as a guidance counselor for the past three years at the Aviation Academy Program, a magnet school under Denbigh High School, Mr. Weaver currently works at the College of William and Mary, where he's also taking classes toward his doctorate in counselor education. 

"No Soldier Left Behind." This is the U.S. Armed Forces' sacred oath. From the battlefields of Iraq, to the farms and fields of Virginia, we're duty-bound to follow the soldier's code of honor. 

That's why, on a cold, dreary morning last week, 18 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen huddled together on their bicycles in the dark in front of the Fort Eustis gymnasium. They were lead by Army Sgt. Maj. Estevan Sotorosado of the U.S. Army Aviation Logistics School. His vision was to find a way to honor and pay respect to the soldiers who were injured or had fallen in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. These "Wounded Warriors" are very much part of the brotherhood of the Armed Forces and must never be forgotten. What better way to recognize their sacrifice than to ride bikes 200 plus miles in their honor and fellowship with them face to face? This was the calling of the brothers and sisters of the Hampton Roads Armed Services. 

Sergeant Sotorosado came up with the idea of a bike ride to Washington, D.C., because many of his fellow soldiers had been injured and were spending time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. An avid cyclist, he put two and two together and realized he could get a group of people together, ride the 200 plus miles through the Commonwealth of Virginia to our nation's capital, and honor the soldiers injured in battle. The idea of the inaugural "Wounded Warrior Unity Tour" was conceived. 

The concept was easy; the execution more difficult. They say "no plan survives contact with the enemy." The challenge was how to get 18 cyclists safely up more than 200 miles of hazardous roadways, with plenty of traffic and congestion along the way. The solution was a team effort, using the tried and true practice of the convoy. Sergeant "Soto," as he likes to be called, managed to solicit donations and volunteers galore, including a small fleet of RVs and motorcycles, as well as police escorts. RV drivers were linked together with a network of cell phones and walkie talkies. For rest stops, the Disabled Vets from Gloucester and the American Legion units from Middlesex and Fredericksburg were called upon to provide water, sport drinks, fruit and snacks. A local grocery store pitched in to help and the Armed Forces Sergeant's Association donated funds to cover the remainder of the cost. 

Freddie James, owner of Freewheelin' Bicycles and President of the Local Chapter of the Armed Forces Cycling Association, provided uniforms, maintenance and logistical support. Mr. James' father, Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James, was the first African-American general in the Air Force. For Mr. James, it was a family affair -- his wife, Shelly, and son, Bronn, rode alongside him the entire way to carry on the family legacy. 

The lead group headed up Route 17 over the Coleman Bridge, and the pace began to quicken. The top riders hit speeds averaging 27 miles per hour. The group spread out, as each person found his or her own pace. The plan was to ride in two groups, the fast group that would "hammer" a 22 plus miles per hour pace, and the main pack, which would average between 15-18 mph. The groups rode 20-30 miles, then stopped at designated rest stops to rest and replenish. No problem; except for those who get a flat, which happened more than eight times to Sergeant Villanueva during the two-day ride. 

The one mishap of the first day was Staff Sgt. Terrill Allen of the U.S. Army's Aviation Logistics Squadron at Fort Eustis. One minute, he was blasting 25 miles an hour up Route 17, and the next minute he was on the pavement, flying head over heels over the handlebars, landing squarely on his head. Sergeant Allen had no recollection of what happened, although he thinks his tire went into a rut, which caused him to flip. He was hospitalized with a mild concussion and a serious case of road rash on his arms and torso. The next day, he was back on his bike and riding with the lead pack. They call that "Army strong." 

The cyclists finished the first day after riding 110 miles and spent the night at Fort AP Hill, a training post in the Fredericksburg area. The next day, they were up before dark, saddling up for the final day's ride. Smells of Ben Gay wafted through the barracks hallway. During the ride, the pace of the lead pack quickened and the weaker riders started to drop out. By the end of the second day, seven of the original eighteen riders had dropped out. In keeping with the "No Soldier Left Behind" creed, there was an RV following behind the last cyclist, providing a protective safety net in the event of a mishap or for riders too fatigued to finish. 

Upon our arrival at Walter Reed Medical Center, we formed up on our bicycles in formation by service: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. We proudly circled the hospital grounds, each carrying a small American flag. A small ceremony was held in the soldiers' honor, where Sergeant Major Sotorosado spoke on behalf of all the riders and presented the commanding officer with two bicycles for the soldier's use. 

It was an emotional experience, meeting with the soldiers who had lost their limbs during the war. One soldier in particular, Sergeant 1st Class Alex Leonard, had been hit by an improvised explosive device while driving his humvee through in Iraq. He lost both legs in the blast, which was so powerful, it partially wrapped the barrel of his M-16 around his leg., "It was a bad day at work," Sergeant Leonard said. He didn't resent the fact that he was wounded, stating "I'm glad it was me instead one of the other guys in my unit." 

Sergeant Leonard is definitely not sitting around feeling sorry for himself. He's already completed three 26-mile marathons, pedaling a hand-cranked wheelchair bicycle. He plans to enroll in the University of Minnesota in the fall and work toward his degree in architecture. His new life is full of possibilities. 

After spending quality time and enjoying the camaraderie with our wounded warriors, it was time to go. Eighteen weary cyclists and a whole entourage of support crew and vehicles lined up in formation and convoyed south on Interstate 95 towards Fort Eustis and home. 

Plans are in the making for next year's event to be bigger and better. 

For those interested in riding next October: start training now, because we're all in this fight together. You'll have all the support you need, and you're guaranteed to make it to the finish, because during the Wounded Warrior Unity Tour, there will be "No Soldier Left Behind."