NFL, war vets pedal message cross country

NFL, war vets pedal message cross country

Published Jan. 20, 2012 1:59 p.m. ET

Jeremy Staat is an ex-NFL and Arizona State defensive lineman. Dale Porter is a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran. Wesley Barrientos is a double amputee.

If you were assembling a dream team for a bicycle trek across the continental United States, this would not be it. But this trio defies conventional logic and eschews melodramatic praise by reminding everyone this ride is nothing compared to what their fellow servicemen have endured over the years.

"In the Battle of the Bulge, guys froze to death. In Vietnam, POWs got skinned alive and took three to fours hours to die," said Staat, a Marine who served as an infantry machine gunner in Iraq. "Sure, the weather will stink at times during our ride, but so be it."

To honor those who have fallen, as well as those who have returned, the trio will embark on a 4,000-plus mile trek through 15 states, 62 towns and nine military bases. They've dubbed it "The Wall to Wall Cross Country Bicycle Ride."

The trip begins Feb. 19 at the Wall of Valor in Bakersfield, Calif. If all goes according to plan, it will end on Memorial Day at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"We're not expecting anything when we get there," Barrientos, 27, said. "We just want to honor our Vietnam veterans. Without them we wouldn't have the respect we're getting now. They went through so much. They got screamed at, got spit on just for serving their country. We just want to say 'thank you.'"

The genesis of this idea came while Staat and Barrientos listened to an ex-Nebraska football star speak at a local high school in Bakersfield about his series of mistakes that led to him failing out of school and missing an opportunity to play in the NFL. The man was being paid to counsel kids; Staat thought: "Man, I would do this for free."

On Memorial Day last year, Staat was addressing a crowd of school kids in Bakersfield. He asked them if they knew what a veteran was. He was greeted by blank stares. He asked them if they knew who Pat Tillman, his former ASU teammate, was. Again, blank stares.

"I saw this huge need to talk to kids," Staat said. "To educate them about veterans and the sacrifices they have made."

So he founded the Jeremy Staat Foundation to raise awareness through speaking engagements with the help of corporate sponsors and private donors. Once he had helped get the final panels and names added to the Wall of Valor in 2011, Staat turned his thoughts to the bigger picture:

Raising awareness across the United States.

"I thought about running across the country like Forrest Gump," he said, laughing. "But that seemed like too much banging on the body. Besides, I'm a Marine. I'll be shaving every day."

Staat admits he is still inspired by Tillman's legacy. It was Tillman who convinced Staat not to join the Marines in 2001 after Staat was cut by the Seattle Seahawks. Staat, who played three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, needed just three more NFL games to qualify for league retirement benefits.

He eventually achieved those requirements by playing for the Rams. He had left the NFL when he decided to enlist a few years later, with Tillman serving as motivation.

But this isn't a story about Tillman's legacy. The American icon is just one small piece of this trio's greater goals. Raising awareness of the plight of veterans is the main thrust.

"Thirty-six states are keeping track of veteran suicides, and the numbers say 18 veterans attempt suicide every day, which is about one every 80 minutes," Staat said. "Veteran suicides have surpassed the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've had 170,000 suicides from Vietnam War veterans."

Staat said the overriding issue remains the support network veterans have when they return home, whether it's help finding a job, getting proper health care or returning to society after experiencing unimaginable psychological and physical trauma.

Staat wants to see a better-run Veterans Affairs system. He wants to know that veterans who just need a tooth fixed won't have to wait years to accomplish such a simple task. Ultimately – if he can raise the funds through his foundation – he'd like to build a private facility to provide the care veterans deserve when they return home.

So, he's assembled his own dream team to raise awareness and raise funds.

"Dale (Porter) is the stereotypical image of what a Vietnam vet looks like," Staat said. "His hair is messed up, he's missing teeth and he has crazy eyes. But he told me, 'I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. I want to do something meaningful with the rest of my time.'"

Barrientos served three tours of duty in the Army in 2005, '06 and '07. The last one could have broken him, but he took the loss of both legs in stride the moment he woke up in a German hospital after being victimized by an IED in Iraq.

"I was just glad to be alive," the three-time Purple Heart recipient said. "I was glad I woke up."

The trio have been training long hours to prepare for the ride. Barrientos will use a hand-cranked bicycle and wear an eight-pound Kevlar helmet to honor his comrades.

"When Jeremy first asked me to do this I thought he was kidding, so I said, 'Why not, dude?'" Barrientos said. "But I truly believe in these causes. I want to stop our guys from killing themselves, so I said 'Let's do it.'"

Many of the trio's speaking engagements and route stops are already set in stone, but Staat said the group is flexible if other towns along the planned route would like to help what he believes is a worthy cause.

"I told Wesley: 'You're not the first guy who ever joined the Army,'" Staat said. "'You're not the first guy to be injured in combat. You're not the first double amputee.

"But the inspiration you give people is through what you do afterward.'"