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Like most of us who have served in the military, I have memories that are never far away. In 2007, I led a group of 800 paratroopers on a perilous tour in Afghanistan. They motivated a large insurgent group to switch sides, but the cost was high: Six were killed in action. I still think about them and all the survivors daily — the love for those who had your back in combat never goes away.
Kolenda’s bike route:
1. Spalding, Neb.: Private First Class Christopher Pfeifer, 21
2. Carroll, Iowa: Sergeant Adrian Hike, 26
3. Elwood, Ill.: Specialist Jacob Lowell, 22
4. Hall, Ind.: Staff Sergeant William Ryan Fritsche, 23
5. Minersville, Pa.: Captain David Boris, 30
6. Arlington National Cemetery, Va.: Major Thomas Bostick, 37
Coming up on the 15-year anniversary, I wanted to visit their graves and tell their families that these men are not forgotten. But driving the 1,689 miles didn’t feel right, and walking would have taken too long. I decided on cycling.
But I wasn’t riding only for those six men. Some survivors could be entering the most dangerous days of their lives. Since our deployment, our unit has lost more of our troops to suicide and substance abuse than to enemy fire. Post-traumatic stress, midlife crisis and feelings of emptiness are a potentially deadly combination. That’s the reason I established a foundation to raise money to help our unit’s veterans and their families.
I’ll never forget riding up a mountain in Minersville, Pennsylvania, to visit Dave Boris’ grave. Dave was an Army captain and like a brother to me. While pedaling the steep incline, I imagined Dave riding next to me. When I finally got to the cemetery at the top of the mountain, I saw Dave’s dad, Al, standing there — and I just started sobbing. His father embraced me with a big hug. In that moment, I understood that I’d never given myself the space to grieve Dave’s death, and I got how sometimes you have to open old wounds so that they can heal.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Christopher Kolenda, 57, is the author of three books, including Leadership: The Warrior’s Art, and the founder of the Saber Six Foundation. He lives in Milwaukee.