Ride for Awareness
A group of bike riders stopped at the Bavarian Inn on Sunday to take a rest from a 335 mile trek from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of issues facing veterans this holiday weekend.
The riders, most of whom are from the western Pennsylvania area, are a part of an organization called the Veteran Leadership Program, a Pittsburgh based non-profit dedicated to returning service members.
This is the second year for the ride, which has raised over $25,000 to assist veterans.
“I lost a lot of friends last year and wanted time to reflect,” said Jack Kudrav, founder of the Veteran Leadership Program, on why he started the ride. “So I got on my bicycle and rode to D.C., I thought it’d be a good experience.”
Kudrav is retired from the military after 22 years of service and started the charitable organization to assist with vets who may have trouble transitioning to the civilian world. Kudrav took his first bike ride last year and thought the event could grow to raise awareness of the hardship many returning military personnel feel.
“We just want to embrace the veterans,” Kudrav said. “This year there are 20 riders, from the feedback we’ve gotten, maybe there will be 100 next year.”
Since retirement, Kudrav has spent most of his time assisting veterans and their families with the sometimes difficult transition back to normal civilian life. The program he helped start has assisted thousands of area veterans to date.
“We want to keep veterans in the forefront of our minds,” Kurdrav said. “I mean, we’re still in the longest American war and these men and women are barely talked about. There’s a significant number of service members who have experienced trauma, and then at home they have to deal with homelessness, chronic unemployment, hunger, the whole gauntlet.”
Kudrav empathizes with vets who may feel lost when they return home and stresses the importance of support structures in place to assist. Often the resources available could be lacking.
“We’ve had vets come from as far away as Detroit,” Kudrav said. “Any given night, there are dozens of homeless vets in Pittsburgh.”
Veterans Leadership Program is run by Kudrav and about 30 employees who are veterans or have family who are veterans.
“It’s a real mixed-bag,” Kudrav said. “They’re great people.”
About 20 riders took a break from the journey and expressed their utmost support and respect for the cause.
“We offer help with transitional services, resume services and homeless prevention among others,” said Dan Blevins, a recent college graduate, veteran and volunteer. “It’s a big issue. A lot come back and have no support, they think their military job can’t transfer but it can, they just need a little help.”
Blevins stresses the importance of perseverance and optimism as many veterans endure a waiting game with benefits and how that can compound the already stressful situation.
“Things can get hard real quick,” said Robert Gunter, a veteran and volunteer with the program, after he completed his ride from Hancock to Shepherdstown. “Some may think their skills are worthless but that’s not the case.”
Whether Iraq or Vietnam or everywhere in between, the riders hold vets close to their hearts.
“I’m riding to honor William Endruweit,” said Boe Bailey, a retired Vietnam navy veteran after 22 years of service. “I’m a cyclist and heard of the organization, I wanted to give back to everyone else.”
The riders all insist on raising awareness for these issues.
“I just wanted to help,” said D.J. Gerena, a veteran Army reservist from Pittsburgh. “Sometimes vets think their skills have a hard time coming over.”
It’s certain all of the riders were united by a love of country, public service and cycling.
“I rode 150-miles in one day because I couldn’t get off work in time,” said Tim Kudrav II. “I just always believed in service, I’ve enjoyed the freedom because of the things they do and have many friends who have served.”
The riders themselves are very a very diverse background.
“I met Jack on the trail and wanted to help out,” said Chris Legerwood, a recent Pittsburgh University graduate who double majored in Neuroscience and Chinese. “It’s a really good cause.”
All of the riders praise public service and the groups commitment to putting the needs of others in front of their own.
“I learned of the group from a different non-profit, Team Red White and Blue,” said Traci Shaner, an 11-year veteran from Pennsylvania. “It feels great helping. I was an intern at the Hud-Vash program with the VA so I knew the need was there.”
The group of riders is supported by a diverse group of employees and volunteers dedicated to serving the greater good.
“My dad was a Vietnam veteran and the cause really spoke to me,” said Robin Rectenwald, Director of Public Relations for Veteran Leadership Program. “The organization is a team of about 35 veterans and civilian employees. It’s personal to them and me. It’s a great cause.”
The riders and leaders hope people will want to learn more and participate in the programs or donate to help those facing difficult challenges.
“What am I supposed to say to a 21-year-old kid who is 100 percent disabled,” said Jack Kudrav. “It makes me angry. We have to help them.”
Kudrav has devoted his life to help veterans and remains optimistic about the group’s efforts.
“The younger generation is impressive,” said Kudrav, but major challenges remains. “A big concern is just trying to get them to come in.”
To contact or learn more about group, readers are encouraged to visit www.neverforgetvets.org or www.VLPWPA.org.