With Liberty and Bicycling For All: Hunter Stoneking
In 2005, I deployed to Iraq. I made it through relatively unscathed, sustaining only minor injuries to my knee, back and hearing only to come home and completely tear my knee playing a football game with future Marines at my local recruiting station. This prevented me from deploying with my unit the following year, as it required surgery.
I became more and more depressed as the months passed and combat reports came in almost daily. Friends were getting injured and killed and there was nothing I could do. I felt I failed my brothers and retreated into a very dark place in my mind. I finished my service in 2007 and lived a secluded life for nearly four years, gaining a large amount of weight and letting my hopelessness and guilt consume me.
Then someone amazing came into my life: my son, who was born in 2010. Though I wasn’t with his mother and didn’t get to see him all the time, I knew I needed to get better for his sake. My father had left when I was very young, and I would not repeat this cycle of abandonment.
I started college and tried to live a healthier lifestyle. I had my ups and downs in this transformation but it wasn’t until I bought a bicycle that I truly began to feel a difference in myself. It started out simply as a way to save on gas money and quickly became my passion. i could feel the wind and sun on my face. I could let go of all the self-loathing and anger and guilt that I had been building up for so long. Best of all: I could share this love with my young child. We spent an entire summer riding that bike.
I could see the love in his eyes and the excitement when ride time came, and it made me feel genuinely happy for the first time in a very long time. A fellow veteran that frequented our local bike shop rode with us a few times and told me about Ride 2 Recovery. At first I didn’t know if I could handle participating. Just thinking about it brought back the pain and guilt of my failures.
How could I face my fellow veterans when most suffered much more severe traumas than I had? But Margaux continued to ask me to participate until I finally decided I needed to face my own demons and do it, not only for my own gain, but for my son’s, as well.
In October 2012, I participated in my first R2R Challenge. At first I was so uncomfortable. I had a panic attack just walking into the room with so many of my brothers and sisters looking at me. I quickly learned, though, that they were there to help me with my healing process just as much as I was with theirs. We are a family, a unit of heroes of all shapes and sizes and all levels of disability.
I felt welcomed somewhere for the first time in a long time and it was in an atmosphere I never thought possible. I cried like a baby nearly the entire first day. I didn’t know how to feel, I didn’t know what to say or how to treat those around me, but hey continued to welcome me into their hearts and by the end of the week my life was changed forever.
It was the big nudge I needed to let go of the past and live for the future. It’s crazy to think something as simple as a bicycle could be the instrument of such a huge change in so many different aspects of a person’s life, but I see it every day when I am with Ride 2 Recovery. It inspires me to continue to improve. I want to ride alongside other R2R warriors that I have come to love and respect; to help them as they helped me to overcome not only mental and physical adversity but to tackle the most difficult, single-day mountain bike event in the U.S.
I never thought I would feel whole again but now through Ride 2 Recovery and cycling I feel anything is possible. I feel I can be the man I want to be and the father my son deserves and there isn’t a more amazing feeling in the world.
Originally published in the July/August issue of American Bicyclist, the magazine for the League of American Bicyclists.