Fresno native comes to the aid of Marines

March 5th, 2011

Posted at 08:24 PM on Saturday, Mar. 05, 2011. By Bill McEwen / The Fresno Bee

Reedley, CA - The Marines had come from all over the country for camaraderie, to test themselves and to soak up the scenery along the Blossom Trail. Before taking off on their bicycles Saturday morning, they posed for a picture at Cricket Hollow Park along the Kings River in Reedley.

"Fat man in a little shirt," someone yells.

The group of 25 breaks out in laughter and more ribbing ensues.

For many, the jokes and recreation are welcome after years of devastating physical and psychological pain stemming from their experiences in the Iraq war -- or crippling injuries suffered as civilians.

"We train like we're still in the fight," says Joe Perez, 44, of Logandale, Nev.

Perez, who returned to the Marines after 9/11 because duty called, suffered major spinal injuries in Iraq and subsequently battled depression born of feeling he had become a burden to his wife and four daughters.

"I had lost faith in myself," Perez says. "I knew I wasn't going to get back to being a Super Dad."

Making a difference is the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit founded in 2004 by Fresno native Karen Guenther, who is married to a Marine officer.

A registered nurse with a passion for volunteering, Guenther organized welcome home activities for injured Marines and sailors at the hospital at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. Then she and four other military wives chipped in $100 apiece with a goal of providing more substantial services.

Since then, the fund has awarded about 26,000 grants totaling $45 million. It is rated a four-star nonprofit by the Charity Navigator website and and A-plus by the American Institute of Philanthropy. More than 94% of proceeds are spent helping injured Marines.

"Karen is the key to this," says Laura Johansson, an Auberry resident who is the organization's sports team manager. "And it all started with $500."

It's a busy assignment for Johansson. Besides cycling events, participants compete in marathons, triathlons, swimming, archery, shooting and biathlons combining cross-country skiing and shooting. The best athletes qualify for the U.S. Paralympic Team.

"The goal is to enhance recovery through sports and developing guys to their full potential," says Paul Fitzgerald, the team's high-performance manager. "We have high-level athletes who are very motivated. You wouldn't believe the progress they can make in a year."

But the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund is about more than sports. It could be making a mortgage payment or buying a computer. If the need is legitimate and can't be met by the military or the Veterans Administration, the fund steps in -- and does so without red tape.

On Saturday, Joey King, 28, of Green Bay, Wis., rode for the first time since being paralyzed from the chest down in a 2009 automobile accident. The fund provided him with a hand cycle and flew him to Fresno for the 22nd annual Kings River Blossom ride put on by the Reedley Lions Club.

"I'm ready to do this," King says before taking off on his 25-mile trek. "I like doing new things."

Not that the flat terrain would pose King problems. He already has been cross-country skiing.

Plans called for a team dinner Saturday night at the foothill home of Johansson and her husband, Carl, a Fresno City College science instructor. Today, it will be up to Yosemite for world-class sight-seeing before the Marines scatter back home.

Perez also does his cycling by hand, his arms and chest powering a 35-pound recumbent machine for more than 60 miles on the event's most challenging route.

The music of choice for his iPod?

Mellow crooner Dean Martin. Call it a marriage of scenery and mood.

"Being here with a lot of my Marine buddies and seeing all of the blossoms on the trees makes for a very relaxing day," Perez says. 'It's good for the soul."

Information on the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund is available at semperfifund.org or at (760) 725-3680. The columnist can be reached at bmcewen@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6632.

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