By Sally Voth
In choosing to ride hundreds of miles for charity in a cross-country bicycle relay, former Marine Lt. Wade Zirkle showed he's got more than a Purple Heart - he's got a golden one.
From Sept. 22-30, Zirkle, 34, pedaled 75-80 miles per day on the Warrior Ride Across America.
He and 10 other riders -- plus a support crew -- started in Oceanside, Calif., near Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, and arrived at Ground Zero in New York City eight days later.
"It was basically an alternating ride," said Zirkle, who lives near Edinburg. "It would be impossible for one person to ride 3,200 miles in a week."
The ride raised more than $400,000 for the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation and the Travis Manion Foundation, according to Zirkle. Both organizations provide scholarship money for children who have lost parents in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
"We had a couple huge corporate donations and then a lot of individual donations," Zirkle said. "We got a nice donation from the Regulus Group, in Woodstock."
For the past four years, the warriors have ridden from the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington to the World Trade Center site.
"This year the guys decided to kick it up a notch and do it cross-country," Zirkle said.
An avid mountain biker, Zirkle hadn't done much road cycling, so he started road training in June.
He's used to working hard.
A suicide car bomb that exploded the truck he was riding in on the way to Fallujah, Iraq, eight years ago could've easily killed Zirkle. He suffered first- and second-degree burns to his face, back and hands, as well as some other more minor injuries.
Seven fellow Marines and three Iraqi national guardsmen were not as fortunate.
"When I was injured, seven Marines were killed, so it was just one of those catastrophic days," Zirkle said. "I keep in touch with all the families of my fallen service members to this day."
Last month's cycle trek was arduous -- the men usually didn't arrive at their campsites until 11 p.m. or midnight, and were up again at 5 a.m. They also ate military MREs -- meals, ready to eat.
"So, it had a really military-like tempo to it," Zirkle said. "There was very little time to recover and rest."
Being around others who knew how to get a job done was enjoyable for him.
"It was physically difficult, but I was mentally prepared for it and physically prepared for it," Zirkle said. "The beginning of the trip, out West, it really had a sense of optimism and adventure. I enjoyed that the most. Once we crossed the Mississippi, we were exhausted, the roads got more congested and dangerous, and we just really wanted to finish."
Zirkle enjoyed the desert in Arizona and the mountains in Colorado, and was surprised at how pretty the towns were in Kansas.
"It's a great way to see the country, and it really renewed my love for America," he said.
He was pleased to have another man he served with accompany him on the journey.
"The medic is a great story," Zirkle said. "He was my corpsman in Iraq, and he lost his leg in Fallujah."
That corpsman, Joe "Doc" Worley, rode as a passenger in a support vehicle along the route, said Zirkle. He said the riders got a police escort when they crossed the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan, and that's when Worley was presented with a hand-crank bicycle.
Worley led the procession through the streets, which were lined with people, said Zirkle, describing it as one of the best memories of his life.
Since his return from Iraq, Zirkle has started Vets for Freedom, a political and issue advocacy group; worked on Wall Street; and, more recently, started StrongPoint Capital LLC, managing ATM machines and cash logistics.
For more information about the Warrior Ride Across America, visit 911heroesrun.com/warriorride.
Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org