The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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July 3, 2012

Neosho native joins cross-country effort to raise awareness about veterans issues

Although Neosho native Glenn Isaac Fretz is paralyzed from the chest down, he soon will join other veterans on a cross-country journey that once seemed impossible.

Fretz will pedal across the United States on a hand cycle, using upper body strength rather than his legs.

Imagine sitting in a wagon, pulling yourself up a hill with a rope, “one pull at a time,” he said. That’s the way it is with a hand cycle, with the rider inching along with each crank.

Most people pedal uphill at speeds of 7 to 15 miles per hour, Fretz said; he averages 1 to 3 mph uphill.

On the flats, he does a little better.

“I can do 26 miles in two hours and 20 minutes,” said Fretz, who lives in Norman, Okla.

Fretz graduated from Neosho High School in 1989; his parents still live in the town. He served with the Army’s 3rd Armored Division in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He said it was there that he suffered serious injures that included spinal cord damage, a crushing injury to his hand and TBI, or traumatic brain injury.

The injury to his brain left him with no memory of how he was injured or what he was doing when it happened. He knows only that he was on a medical evacuation mission to retrieve injured troops.

“I was coming off an evac track,” he said, referring to a tracked vehicle used to evacuate troops, but even now he isn’t sure what happened next.

The injuries set him back mentally as well as physically.

“When I was injured, my cognitive level went to the fourth-grade level in some areas and the second-grade level in others,” he said. “But by 2004, I was back on the college level, and in 2009, I graduated from the University of Oklahoma.”

Fretz left the service in 1994. A few years later, he was involved in a car accident in California that rebroke vertebrae in his back and neck.

“I went through over 10 years of rehabilitation,” he said. “The first two years, I was learning how to sit up again and learning to do things that most people take for granted, like buttoning up your shirt.”

Fretz has been competing as a wheelchair athlete since 2002. Last month, he won silver medals in wheelchair basketball and hand-cycling competitions as part of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Richmond, Va. The event is the largest of its kind for wheelchair athletes.

Later this month, he leaves with four other veterans who will ride bicycles and hand cycles across the United States as part of the Long Road Home Project.

The route will take the riders through a dozen military bases, beginning July 15 with Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state and ending three months later in Washington, D.C. The ride will pass through hundreds of small towns where the riders will interact with local veterans organizations.

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