Men bike across U.S. to raise funds for wounded Marines

By Zahra Farah | GO San Angelo Standard-Times | | July 9, 2012

SAN ANGELO, Texas – Battling heat, hills and treacherous drivers, four men plan to bike 2,744 miles in 63 days to raise money for injured Marines coming from Iraq and Afghanistan.

On recumbent bicycles, which place the rider in a reclining position, the men already have covered 1,400 miles in 33 days.

Ben Maenza, 23, of Tennessee; Troy McLehany, 43, and Dennis McLaughlin, 62, both of Texas; and John Gerlaugh, 58, of Virginia, began their journey at the shores of the Atlantic in St. Augustine, Fla.

Their goal is to raise a $1 million, reach Camp Pendleton, just outside San Diego, and touch the Pacific Ocean, which will mark the end of their trip across the United States.

As they pedal through the sweltering heat, donations go to the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit organization committed to raise money so critically injured members in the U.S. Armed Forces have a fighting chance to get back on their feet after war.

This organization helped Maenza, a retired Marine, who lost both his legs when a 20-pound roadside bomb hit him during his 2010 tour in Afghanistan.

Semper Fi quickly visited Maenza when they found out he was injured. They brought his girlfriend and parents to his bedside.

"They make sure you're never alone in the hospital," Maenza said.

Unlike some other groups, Semper Fi makes a lifetime commitment to war veterans.

"There's a thousand people telling you they're here for you and here's my card, but you never see them again," he said.

Semper Fi, which is short for semper fidelis, is a Marine Corps motto that translate to "always faithful." The organization's goal is to faithfully help heroes in need.

The fund, created in 2004, has given more than $63 million to about 8,000 soldiers and their families.

Semper Fi pays for the staggering cost of hospitalization, treatment expenses and other expenses that stretch a families' budget.

Once they leave the hospital, the organization also helps to modify homes to accommodate soldiers with serious disabilities. Maenza said the fund gave him a grant for a car he could drive.

"As soon as you hit the door they're here for you," he said.

Even though the organization has helped more than 8,000 families, it continues to face a number of challenges. Donations are dwindling and the group has only reached about $119,00 of its goal. The group of men pay their traveling expenses out of pocket, and 100 percent of the donations they receive goes toward the charity.

"If everyone we've met donated a $1, we wold have already reached our goal," Gerlaugh said. "We ride for a reason."

Gerlaugh, a retired Marine, and his brother-in-law McLaughlin, first got the idea to travel across country when they watched "The Bucket List," a movie about two men who take a road trip with a wish list of things they have in mind to do before they die.

Gerlaugh and McLaughlin knew they wanted to do something, but didn't know what until they were invited by a few friends to attend a Semper Fi Fund convention in New York. That is where they met Maenza, whose story inspired them to ride cross country. They also recruited their friend, McLehany, and everything fell into place.

The group also is accompanied by a trailer driven by Alana Grigsby, McLehany's girlfriend, who keeps the group hydrated and well fed.

Gerlaugh also was in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007-08, saw young men and woman risk their lives every day.

He recalls in Afghanistan a young Marine who risked his life and died to save an Afghan police officer from drowning. When the officer fell into a river, the Marine ran after him, but because of the weight of his gear, the river swept both of them away.

"These young men and women risk their lives every day, so we can be successful," Gerlaugh said. "Freedom is not free."

In each state the group has traveled they received a warm welcome, especially in Texas, Gerlaugh said. Their scariest experience was when a driver who was texting almost hit Maenza on U.S. Highway 87. Fortunately the group quickly told him to move out of the way.

Regardless of the obstacles they face they continue to ride.

Maenza, who peadals with his hands, said he does it to "inspire people who face something so traumatic that it's not over."

Help them reach their goal! Donate on their website.

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