With sweat streaming, James Dennis doused himself with bottled water as the lower half of his body ached Saturday after a bicycle ride over the course of two weeks from Chicago to Aubrey.
His journey extracted a heavy toll. A severed back tire mid-trip demanded immediate maintenance, and a late trip to the emergency room was made at his last overnight stop in Oklahoma on Friday because the physical pain he endured exacerbated from the constant strain.
As police escorted him to the rally of people awaiting his arrival, he steadily swerved his bike into a grassy patch, plopped it down and promptly knelt down to coddle a large dog. Both were panting when he plainly said, “That sucked” as the hot sun bore down upon his head.
Nine hundred miles on a bike still pales to the forever pain from his past loss of a close friend who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and eventually committed suicide.
“It’s probably easier losing a friend in combat since you’re forced to move forward. It is what it is,” Dennis said. “But to lose a friend when you have nothing but time — time kills.”
To raise awareness for U.S. veterans who commit suicide, he started his Ride to Heal project with a goal to raise $60,000 in total donations to fund medical expenses for any two veterans in need.
With the aid of Defenders of Freedom, a nonprofit that aims to cover hospital bills for veterans through crowd sourcing and events, alongside the local 920 chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, they all organized a bike ride Saturday from Bedford to the Green Valley School Historical Society in Aubrey. The school is where they greeted Dennis on his arrival from the north.
Live music and food were provided as Dennis urged awareness for the service and cost soldiers pay. He also criticized what he believes is a failure of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to properly provide medical care for veterans.
“If the VA was taking care of us after we come back from overseas, or take care of us period for our time and service, I wouldn’t have to be doing this ride,” he said.
Dennis, a two-time Purple Heart recipient, was wounded by two explosives in the same day while he served with the 101st Airborne Division that deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. A few weeks later, another explosive wounded him, forcing him to back to the U.S.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and developed PTSD in the aftermath, and was put on suicide watch while hospitalized.
He first encountered Donna Cranston, the founder of Defenders of Freedom, as an advocate for Wounded Warriors project in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They bonded under common cause, and whenever Cranston learned that Dennis was placed on suicide watch, she called the hospital he was admitted to and persuaded them to let him enroll in her nonprofit’s program that provides funds for his rehabilitation.
“A lot of long, late-night phone calls, love and support from fellow veterans helped facilitate his recovery,” she said. “The [VA] continues to fail veterans like him. We’re doing what we can to stand in the gaps they leave.”
The combination of Defenders of Freedom and the 920 chapter of the VVA resulted from both organizations meeting at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to meet and greet soldiers returning for leave. The 920 chapter offers a renovated school house from 1910 they attained in 1959.
Their location hosts weddings, holiday events and more, so when they encountered Cranston, the potential for collaborative events and fundraisers presented itself.
“It’s been a great partnership to have. The joint effort smoothens how these events work out,” Cranston said. “And it’s all about the greater cause of helping those who need the help.”
John Miller, a fellow Purple Heart recipient who also suffered a TBI, drove alongside Dennis to provide logistical assistance and noted the spectacle of cycling 900 miles was necessary solely because it grabs attention.
“We either needed to do something really crazy, or really stupid,” Miller said. “But if we can save even one from suicide, then our mission’s accomplished.”
He flew in from northern Pennsylvania just two days prior to setting out with Dennis. Although the request was last minute -- and significant -- Miller realized the ride to be a radical experience.
“I’ve always been in support of vets, but I’ve never done anything as significant as this,” Miller said. “Any time a brother asks for help, I’ll do it.”
A sizeable $60,000 for two veterans in need demands action and moral support. But awareness demands more importance to Dennis. The gathering of hundreds of motorcyclists and anybody from the public who realizes the trials he sees among his peers rationalizes a cross-country ride.
And though he still copes with struggles to this day, they don’t inhibit his desire to save those who felt the emptiness he felt. The desire expressed among each organization present for the bike rally.
“I just want to go back into the shadows with my wife and kids,” Dennis said. “I want nothing out of this except to help my brothers who need help.”
To support veterans, visit the Defenders of Freedom website at http://defendersoffreedom.us/donate for more information.
MATT PAYNE can be reached at 940-566-6845 and via Twitter at @MattePaper.