By Kyrie O'Connor | My San Antonio | mysanantonio.com | July 5, 2012
College Station – If you let Texans Dennis McLaughlin or Troy McLehany tell the story, Ben Maenza of Tennessee is the hero. If you let Maenza tell it, the heroes are McLaughlin, McLehany and their crew.
Let's stipulate up front: They're all heroes.
All of them, plus McLaughlin's brother-in-law, John Gerlaugh of Virginia, are riding recumbent bicycles across the U.S. to raise funds for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which provides aid to injured Marines well past their hospital stays.
The ride came together in pieces. It started as a simple bucket-list item for McLaughlin, 62, of Friendswood and Gerlaugh, 57. That changed when they met Maenza, 23, at a Marine Corps dinner on the USS Intrepid in New York. Two-and-a-half years ago, when Maenza was a Marine lance corporal on foot patrol in an Afghan cornfield, a roadside bomb blew his legs off.
Meeting Maenza and other Marines convinced the pair to make their ride a money-raiser for the injured Marine fund. "Their stories grabbed my heart," says McLaughlin. He called up his buddy, McLehany, 42, of League City, who served with the Marines in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He agreed on the spot to join them.
Accompanied by a 37-foot tractor-trailer (the drivers are Steve Mann and Alana Grigsby), the quartet set out from St. Augustine, Fla., with a goal of reaching San Diego in 62 days. Saturday, a rare day off from ridaing, was Day 21; miles logged, 1,120. On Tuesday, they headed out for Georgetown.
All the guys are tanned and wind-blown – and impressively muscled. They've endured heat, rain, more heat and mechanical problems. The worst, McLehany says, was a "scary" blowout on a shoulder-less Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, on a 100-degree day when they rode 105 miles. They estimate they burn 600 calories per hour of riding.
Roughly parallel to the Interstate 10 corridor, their route describes a dust ruffle along the bottom of the country, small town after small town. "We've seen a lot of beautiful stuff, a lot of road kill, a lot of beautiful people, a lot of patriotic people," says Maenza, a cheerful, open-faced guy.
One of the best days? A week ago, when Cleveland, in Liberty County, welcomed the riders. "They pretty much shut down the town for us," Maenza says. They were treated to dinner, a hotel and a movie.
There have been sacrifices. The fund isn't paying their way (nor would the men have it that way) and McLaughlin has walked away from his business, McLaughlin Erectors Inc., for the summer, as McLehany has from his, H-Town Bail Bonds, depending on relatives and employees to keep things going. "Every dollar goes to the fund," says McLaughlin.
Maenza can't say enough good things about what the fund, which has given out more than $62 million since 2004, did for him when he needed it. It brought his parents and girlfriend to his bedside. "They made sure I was never alone in the hospital," he says. The fund gave him a grant for a car he could drive. If he even mentioned he'd be going home, he'd find gas cards slipped under his door.
The fund doesn't forget, either. "This is for the rest of your life," he says.
And that's why he's riding. "It's a blessing to give back to somebody who gave me so much."
The goal is to raise $1 million, but it's been surprisingly slow, says McLaughlin. Plenty of thumbs-ups and high fives, but not a lot of cash – $45,641 so far.
"If everybody who has seen us had given even a dollar, we'd be at our goal already," he says.
The way they tell it, the ride has changed their lives already. "I've learned a lot about becoming a man," from the other guys, Maenza says.
McLaughlin has a different story, and it's about Maenza. "I'm 62, and not much impresses me or inspires me. This man does."
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