Pair of vets take on grueling challenge to call attention to health issues

Wesley Barrientos rolled into the rest stop on the outskirts of Boulder City and asked a friend to hand him his "legs" — the artificial ones he uses to walk and run after he lost his real ones to a roadside bomb explosion in 2007 during his third deployment to Iraq.

It had been a chilly ride Tuesday cranking his three-wheeled cycle with his hands and arms as he headed north on U.S. 95 from Laughlin with his friend and fellow veteran Jeremy Staat riding a bicycle beside him.

They had stopped to catch their breath and to join a throng of supporters at this gravel pullover off a road that heads east toward Nelson. It was the ninth day of a 4,163-mile ride from the Wall of Valor in Bakersfield, Calif., to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

The Wall of Valor is a memorial to 1,012 veterans in Kern County who have died in service since World War I.

"I don’t see just names etched in glass. I see faces, people, heroes that we seem to forget about sometimes," said Staat, who served as a Marine corporal during the Iraq War.

"The ride was a way of inspiring kids and really bring awareness to our veterans and the sacrifices they have made," he said, adding that the ride is also a tribute to Vietnam War veterans.

"A lot of those guys didn’t get a warm welcoming."

As the Jeremy Staat Foundation motto proclaims, they are "aiming for awareness" on this 100-day cross-country bicycle ride that will take them through 15 states and to at least 10 military installations.

"The main thing is we want to unite the nation," said Barrientos, 27, who served with the 101st Airborne Division’s 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment and has received three Purple Heart medals.

Barrientos zeroed in on three issues affecting veterans:

■ Suicides stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder. "We’re losing 18 veterans a day to suicide. That just can’t happen," he said.

■ Improved health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. "It just sucks. We need to fix that," he said. "Fire everybody. The people there right now, 90 percent don’t care about the veterans. They’re just there to get a paycheck, and that’s it."

His view was shaped by injuring his only knee during a fall in his garage. For six months he got the runaround from the VA and finally had to live with the pain until finally getting help that would get him out of his wheelchair and back on his prosthetic legs.

■ A centralized system for accessing VA education benefits. The VA and universities bounce around veterans with too much paperwork from too many places, he said. "We need to have a one-stop center."

Staat, 35, who played defensive end for several National Football League teams including the Pittsburgh Steelers, joined the Marines in 2005, the year after his friend and Arizona State University teammate Pat Tillman, an Army Ranger, was killed in Afghanistan.

Tillman, a free safety for the Arizona Cardinals, and Staat had the same agent while in the NFL. And both had contemplated joining the Army in the flood of patriotism that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Tillman persuaded Staat to wait until retiring from the NFL to enlist.

"In 2002, when Pat enlisted, I was with the Oakland Raiders. I called him up and laughed at him and said, ‘Hey man, you stole my idea.’ And he said, ‘No, I just reconfirmed it.’ "

After Tillman was killed in a friendly fire incident, Staat decided he could better serve the nation by joining the Marines.

"I was upset with the debacle the Army had made of the cover-up of Pat’s death," he said. "I’m not going to be a second Pat Tillman."

The Wall to Wall riders and their support crew visited the state veterans home in Boulder City.

They are scheduled to ride to Nellis Air Force Base today and then depart Friday for Arizona, riding across the Hoover Dam bypass bridge named in honor of Tillman and former Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who was a Korean War veteran.

Staat expects he will be nervous but will slow down the pace of their ride "to savor the moment."

"There’s different emotions you feel when you know that you’re riding for a friend, or you’re riding for veterans in general. But to ride over that bridge after it was named after Pat, it’s probably going to be a little emotional for me."

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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