The Riding Reporter : A ride with a wounded soldier who's pedaling towards recovery
Interviewee: Jeff Sinchak
Occupation: Spokesperson for Wounded Warrior Project
Riding style: Recreational
His ride: Trek road bike
In 1984, Jeffery "Doc" Sinchak joined the Navy. He was only 17 years old and in search of adventure.
In his 24-year military career he became a Hospital Corpsman and Navy Diver and served as a member of various Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Naval Special Warfare teams.
He served in Operation Southern Watch, Operation Restore Hope, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Throughout it all, he suffered a number of injuries, including a gunshot wound, an arterial gas embolism, decompression sickness, and a broken foot.
One particular wound led to his early retirement, followed by some dark and difficult years. It also led him to the Wounded Warrior Project and got him to start riding his bicycle.
Dubbed the "invisible wound", Sinchak is one of thousands of Iraq veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
On September 17, Sinchak will join 24 other "wounded warriors" in Fort Lewis for the 2011 Soldier Ride, a cycling event organized by the Wounded Warrior Project to help wounded soldiers restore their physical and emotional well-being.
I met up with Sinchak and his wife, Kyrstie, on a beautiful sunny August day in Seattle.
"When I fall over just make a joke," Sinchak advised me as he clipped into the pedals of his brand new Trek road bike.
"In my early years as a diver in the Navy I did triathlons but that is a long time ago," Sinchak said.
The Soldier Ride offers various distances to allow Warriors of all ability levels to participate. Some will be on unmodified bikes, others will be riding state-of-the-art adaptive hand cycles and trikes.
Sinchak said he's riding the 25 mile ride.
"The competitive Navy guy in me wants to ride the 50-miler but I'm not there yet," he said.
Getting to where he is today was a long and bumpy journey. Crossing the finish line at the Soldier Ride, Sinchak said, will be a huge milestone.
The start of Sinchak's bumpy journey started in 2007, after he completed a tour in Iraq and retired.
"When I retired in 2007 it wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do. But because of where I was emotionally and physically coming out of Iraq, they gave me a strong recommendation to retire," Sinchak explained.
"When it was recommended that I retire, they took my uniform and they took my identity. That's what I was my whole life - a diver and a medic - and that got taken away."
Sinchak recalled being unable to deal with the trivial things of everyday life and dwelled on his last tour.
"I didn't dwell much on the physical injuries I have. For me, quite frankly, it was coming home alive. A lot of guys and gals gave it up over there in the service for their country and that's what I intended to do when I went and it didn't happen," he said.
Sinchak recalled writing three letters when he was on the plane to Iraq, one to his wife and one for each of his sons.
"They were death letters. I poured my heart in them because they were my last message for them," he said.
"When you go into combat like that you can't carry the baggage of wanting to stay alive because then you compromise the mission. You got to go in with everything you've got. As a career service guy there is no greater honor than to have that flag presented to your family. That didn't happen for me."
Struggling to cope, Sinchak went into a dark place. He started drinking, ran away to Montana, hid from the world, and got heavy, he said.
"I was missing the guys I was with and quite frankly I felt guilty about being alive and I didn't know how to handle it," he said.
"Lots of guys come home missing arms and legs and I'm not, everything is intact, more or less. I was just a guy now who had a lot of crap to deal with and there aren't a whole lot of resources for that."
Sinchak said that through it all, his family stood by him and supported him even when they suffered too.
"Their support and their loyalty has allowed me the opportunity to figure out what went wrong and how to make it right." he said.
"Looking back now, there were days where they were absolutely afraid of me. And that's kind of sad. Those who you care for the most become those you care about the least."
Sinchak's wife of 24 years, Kyrstie served in the United States Nurse Corps and credits her medical background and military experience to be able to deal with her husband's struggles.
"Sometimes I think she's the greater warrior than I ever was. When I was deployed and struggling she took care of the family and kept the house running," Sanchak said.
It was Kyrstie who encouraged Sinchak to look at the Wounded Warrior website.
Initially, Sinchak didn't identify with the Project because he didn't indentify with being wounded.
"I have issues but I'm intact. I'm not wounded. When I'm fully dressed, you don't see the invisible wound," he said. "I kind of discounted it but something had a hook and I revisited it."
The hook was a program called "Warriors to work" which helps veterans to find jobs.
"At the time I was an unemployement and as a self-motivated, physical, navy guy to be on unemployment wasn't easy," he said.
"[The Wounded Warrior Project] put their hand out and I took it. They pulled me out of this well I was in, gave me some counseling and offered me to be part of something bigger than myself," Sinchak said.
Today, Sinchak has a full time position with the Wounded Warrior Project as a spokesperson for a program called "Warriors Speak".
"It allows me to speak candidly about my issues and to help service members find some of the recovery lanes that I have found to get back to living again," he said.
"I don't have all the answers but I've got one: you've got to get up. You got to take a step and take a step forward. The soldier ride does that. It gives guys and gals an opportunity to step forward. We're going to have guys out there that are amputees, we're going to have guys out there with PTSD, and we're going to have guys out there who were burned. For some [the ride] it will be easy. For some it's going to be the hardest thing they've done."
Sinchak said biking gets him outside and allows him to be free and in control.
"I can go as hard and as fast or as slow and as easy as I want. I can set the pace. It tells me...it tells me, Anne, that I can still do what I did before. Maybe in a different capacity but one of the shameful and saddest places for me was losing my competitive edge and not engaging life. It was hard for a guy who became a leader in the Navy to say, I haven't been much of a leader for a while," he said.
"If it wasn't for the [Wounded Warrior] Project, you and I wouldn't be having this conversation."
When I asked him if he'd be supportive of his sons if they expressed interest in a military career, Sinchak said he would be behind them 100 percent.
"I'd support them and be with them every step of the way," he said. "I hope nobody sees combat but it's part of the nature of men to make war. If that's where they find value, if that's where they find a sense of purpose and belonging, military service gives you that.
"I tell you this, if someone landed on our shores and I had to do it again for the defense of my nation, I would without hesitation."
Sinchak encouraged people to attend the Soldier Ride and go for a bike ride with a wounded warrior to hear their story.
"The media wants to see flag-drapped coffins. The soldiers that make the news, are dead. There are thousands of soldiers struggling with everyday life and there stories never get told," he said.
"Come out to the Soldier Ride and show your support. Come out and just clap and cheer for them. These guys are facing great challenges and they're facing them head-on."
To register to ride, get involved, or donate to Soldier Ride, please visit soldierride.org.
The Riding Reporter is a feature series in which BNT's bike-riding reporter, Anne-Marije Rook, takes interviewees on a short bike ride around town to talk bicycles, transit, and any other issue that may arise when seeing the city from a two-wheeled point of view. Previous interviewees include Mayor Mike McGinn, ultra-cyclist Chris Ragsdale, bike messenger world champion Craig Etheridge, Chuck Ayer from Cascade Bicycle Club, and more