It's been nine years since this retired Marine sergeant returned from combat in Iraq, and it was time to start a new assignment -- working as a psychology intern at the Madigan Army Medical Center at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma.
Ex-Marine combat vet Rich Blake, who will be commissioned as an Army captain when he begins his internship on June 4, did an externship at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Baltimore to help get ready for his new stint. Blake worked with Dr. Deborah Kalra at that VA facility. Dr. Kalra just happens to be the sister of Bicycle Stories and tipped off this blog about Blake's incredible two-wheeled, cross-country journey.
Bicycle Stories talked with Blake today.
When Blake -- the former infrantryman turned doctoral student -- was ready to leave Baltimore for Tacoma, he did not start the ignition of a car or board a jet.
Instead, Blake hopped on the bicycle saddle of a Trek 29er mountain bike and pedaled some 3,200 miles in 32 days, including more than 200 miles the final day when he biked through the night and reached Tacoma at 7 a.m. on June 1.
Dubbed "Operation Return to Duty," the solo, self-contained bike voyage raised $25,000 for two charities -- The 6th Branch, which is a community service organization he helped found, and also the Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness, a pro-bono health services organization.
Blake wanted to get into psychology because he served on the front lines and could relate to the psychological experiences and combat stress facing vets. He earned his undergraduate psychology degree at Florida Atlantic University and is pursuing his doctoral in clinical psychology at Loyola University in Maryland.
Pedaling the bicycle to start his military internship in Tacoma was consistent with Blake's desire to serve.
Blake used his Trek 29er to bike commute in Baltimore. He was given a Kona cyclecross bike for the cross-country trip, but stuck with the 29er mountain bike because it felt more comfortable.
The trek across America was challenging. On one day, Blake confronted 45 mph winds in Minnesota and was able to pedal a mere 30 miles from 6 am to 12 noon into the teeth of the headwinds. So, he took a break from the road and resumed his bike ride later at 2 a.m. when the winds died down.
"It just wasn't efficient biking into the wind during the day," Blake said of that one particular morning in Minnesota. "So, I just waited it out and got up early (at 2 a.m.) to bike."
Later in Montana, Blake had to take two days off to let saddle sores heal enough for him to continue. And there was also a rest day in Illinois and nine broken spokes along the way.
There was a good day, too, such as the day in North Dakota when tailwinds pushed Blake to pedal 180 miles on that day.
Despite the physical challenge, the ride was inspiring and gave Blake new perspectives on life across the country.
"The perspective is so much different from a bicycle. It broke a lot of stereotypes. I can tell you that Iowa is not flat and Washington state is not just apple trees," Blake said.
Bicycle Stories says, "Congratulations Army Capt. Blake," and good luck on your next assignment. You can-do attitude will help many veterans.