By Josh Letner
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.
The 4,200-mile ride is the brainchild of San Francisco native Casey Miller and is aimed at bringing attention to the struggles of injured veterans.
Miller said the inspiration for the Long Road Home Project stemmed from a personal struggle he underwent last year. He said he lost his job, got dumped by his girlfriend and lost his home, all within the course of a week.
“A kind of perfect storm ensued for me to tackle some personal things and take a look at what was really important to me, and I figured the best way to do that was to ride a bicycle,” he said. “I didn’t own a bike at the time, so I went and bought one. Two weeks later, I declared to the world that I was going to ride across the country.”
Miller interviewed about 600 people along the way, asking them what was really important in their lives.
“I wanted to ask people how they found meaning in their lives because back then I didn’t have much in my own,” he said.
After returning home, Miller compiled those interviews into a book titled “6 1/2” that will be published this month. He also founded the Long Road Home Project to share what he calls “the healing power of the road” with veterans.
“The road does a remarkable job of healing people, so what immediately came to mind was to develop a program for veterans who are coming back and having difficulties with their own transition home,” he said.
‘Such a feat’
Fretz, 42, said he looks forward to sharing his story and his message of hope with service members and veterans.
“I’m going to get a chance to talk to soldiers at different military installations, and I’m going to be able to talk to veterans at different veterans organizations and veterans hospitals,” he said. “Hopefully I can give them hope and inspiration.”
Fretz said he knows the ride will be physically challenging, but he thinks he is up to the task.
“I’m doing 40 to 60 miles per day every chance I get,” he said of his training.
His desire to undertake the ride stirs admiration in Miller, who recalls how taxing his first ride across the country was.
“I was exhausted by the time I got across the country,” Miller said. “I can’t imagine how he’s going to do this. It’s such a feat.”
Fretz will pull his 20-pound service dog, Bernie, on a trailer behind his hand cycle.
Miller said all five riders are hoping to raise awareness about their own particular veterans issues. They currently are raising money to fund the ride. He said a portion of all proceeds over the amount needed to complete the ride will be donated to Operation First Response, a nonprofit organization that helps bridge the financial gap between when a Veterans Affairs claim is authorized and when the VA check arrives.
“While waiting for these claims, many veterans have to make tough decisions, like whether to pay the mortgage or feed their children,” Miller said.
Fretz said his wife, Frances, and their two children are his inspiration to complete the ride. He said he will see them only once during the ride — when the riders pass through Kansas City on Labor Day weekend — but he hopes his efforts will provide an important example for his children.
“I’m trying to teach my kids that there are no limits in life,” he said.
It’s the same message he wants to pass on to other veterans.
“You just have to do your best every day and never accept any limits,” he said.
Want to help?
TO DONATE to the Long Road Home Project, or to follow the progress of the riders, people may visit longroadhomeproject.com.