7/24/2012 7:06:00 PM Ride for Heroes pedals through Camp Verde The long trek to help injured Marines
Organizers of the Ride for Heroes Dennis McLaughlin (left) and John Gerlaugh take a rest in Camp Verde. The cross-country triking ride is meant to bring awareness to and raise money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
That is the motto of the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. It is a message four guys are taking across the country - by bicycle. And one of them is exactly the kind of Marine the nonprofit organization is dedicated to helping - a double amputee.
Ben Maenza, 23, lost his legs serving in Afghanistan in 2010. Returning to the States in only a blanket, clothes cut off, the lance corporal learned the healing power of the Semper Fi Fund as the organization clothed him, brought in his family and equipped him with a vehicle modified so he could drive it without legs. To give back, he joined the Ride for Heroes fund-raising trip.
Tuesday, the Ride for Heroes group took a break in Camp Verde as they approached the final leg of their journey. Their trip left St. Augustine, Fla., in June and they are aiming for Camp Pendleton in California by Aug. 10. The ride is meant to bring awareness to and raise money for the Semper Fi Fund.
The fund provides immediate resources for Marines and Sailors injured post-911 and members of the all branches of the service serving in support of the U.S. Marines.
Organizers of the Ride for Heroes, Dennis McLaughlin and his brother-in-law John Gerlaugh of Virginia, hatched the idea after they were invited to a Semper Fi Fund dinner aboard the USS Intrepid. There, Marines who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan told their stories of losing limbs and how they have been able to move on with their lives.
"Their attitude was 'Don't pity me. I'm a Marine, and I'd do it again,'" says McLaughlin, 62, a businessman from Texas.
They have met with double-amputees, triple-amputees, quadruple-amputees and men burned over 90 percent of their bodies. Time and again, they encountered the same attitude of coming to terms and pushing forward.
"That attitude is one that gives the fabric of society a special thread for a shared experience," says Gerlaugh. "It's what makes this country special. Gerlaugh, 58, has in-the-field experience with Marines, working for the State Department in restoring infrastructure in war-torn areas.
While at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan, he was taken to a Combat Aid Station (a MASH unit for you old-timers) and met Marines who were victims of improvised explosive devices.
Attending the second Semper Fi Fund dinner on the Intrepid, McLaughlin and Gerlaugh told attendees about their plan to ride across the United States to help raise funds. That's when Maenza, from Nashville, approached them and said he wanted to ride, too.
McLaughlin and Gerlaugh thought he meant to be with the group temporarily, hand-cranking himself through a portion of the trip.
"But he told us, 'Why would I start something I'm not going to finish.' He's a hoot. He's an inspiration," says McLaughlin, son of a Marine.
Also joining the trip was Troy McLehany, 43, of League City, Texas. He is a former Marine who now owns his own bail bonds companies.
Despite summer heat, Ride for Heroes took the southern route across the country to avoid the Rocky Mountains. Gerlaugh says the highest elevation they've pedaled their converted trikes was 8,124. They average 55 to 60 miles a day. McLaughlin prided himself on reaching his top speed of 53 mph coming downhill on State Route 260 into Camp Verde.
With an invaluable support group back home, the four cyclists have been accompanied by an RV touting the Ride for Heroes logo. Temporarily without a driver, they would take turns driving the RV as the other three pushed on. They use GPS to update their location for their website (they will be in Prescott this week), and are able to stay on top of weather patterns.
All along the way, they have encountered salt-of-the-earth people. Law officers leap-frogged escorting them through Florida. People who heard they would be coming through their town have waited to greet them. Others have waited in ambush to give them cash and checks.
The poorest of people were the most giving, they found. Even those who had no money helped spread the word, including Hector Morales in Sterling City, Texas, who took the message to his church. A young girl on a bicycle rode by them as they stayed in a rundown RV park. She came back and gave them a juice box with her savings - $3.07 in pennies.
People who were clearly impoverished, people who were out of work have been most generous. The riders refuse to use any of the funds raised for their personal use on the journey, but many people have stepped up with services to keep them going. That has meant servicing the RV air conditioning, black water and gray water units and their bikes.
McLaughlin said a woman in Hobbs, N.M., who had lost her husband to cancer gave them a check for $10,000. And then her daughter presented them with the last $100 bill her dad had slipped to her before he died. They were just two examples of a community that McLaughlin called "second to none" in opening their doors to the riders.
"This has been way more of a journey than just a trip," Gerlaugh said.
"It's not about us. It's what Semper Fi does for people like Ben, who've given everything," McLaughlin says.
With an A+ rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy, the Semper Fi Fund fills in where the government and insurance come up short. That includes converting homes for wheelchair and equipment access, education, kids camps, family support and more. About 95 percent of all funds go to program expenses. About 4 percent is for administrative expenses and the rest goes to fund-raising expenses.
Ride for Heroes is just one of several benefits for the Semper Fi Fund. Though the riders have seen a lot of supporters cheering them on, they have actually had only about 300 donors.
"We don't expect big donations. We're asking $5. We'll take a buck," McLaughlin says. "It's so needed. These people are heroes, and they're all too forgotten, just like 911 is, in my opinion."
Ride for Heroes is a little ahead of schedule. Their interlude at the Zane Grey RV park in Camp Verde allowed Maenza and McLehany to take the truck to the Grand Canyon while McLaughlin and Gerlaugh rested. Once the ride is finished. McLaughlin plans to take his grandson back through some of the places they've seen, including the Grand Canyon.
Follow the guys on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/semperfi.rideforheroes, where you can also track their GPS location. To donate online, go to www.rideforheroes.stayclassy.org.