It was the third IED of the day that got Sgt. Stefan Leroy while on patrol in Afghanistan that June day of 2012. Carrying one of his two buddies who had been victimized by an earlier IED to a waiting chopper, Leroy’s life and the body he knew were forever altered. His buddy didn’t survive; Leroy did, albeit without either of his legs intact. Just 21-years-old and a proud member of the 82nd Airborne, the sergeant was suddenly done with combat and on his way to a lengthy stay at Walter Reed, where he would need to adjust to his new physical reality.
So many soldiers who have been injured in combat yearn for physical activity, and Stefan was no different. A 21-year-old member of a military outfit at war must have a lot of energy and adrenaline to do his job at the highest level, and being hospitalized with little outlet for that energy left the heart and mind of this young soldier—as it does many others—caught in a negative cycle.
“I’m a double amputee so I had a lot of struggles trying to get back up on my legs. Trying to walk and get active again was very difficult,” he explains.
Like so many of the veterans who have participated in a Ride2Recovery challenge, Stefan saw an opportunity in the program that through exercise aids veterans in rehabilitation. Although his ravaged lower body was a tremendous obstacle, he still had use of his arms, and that was essential to getting back into the swing of things.
“Hand-cycling for me was that thing I could always turn to after my injury; I could immediately get on my bike,” says Stefan. “It was the physical activity I continued to do regardless of surgery or soreness or anything that was happening to my legs. It was my way of staying active, motivated, and positive in showing that I could still do stuff while recovering from my injury.”
Cycling soon became a regular part of Stefan’s routine. His father was by his side for much of his stay at Walter Reed, and cycling was something that they could do together. “He’s a former cyclist so we were both able to do it together (he was in the upright and I was in the hand cycle),” adds Stefan. “He was with me through a lot in Walter Reed, so he was there for a lot of those failures I had with surgeries or when I was trying to walk… it was easy to get frustrated. To have something that I did well, after injury, that I wasn’t failing at--where my body wasn’t failing me--was a great outlet to get rid of that stress and have something positive happen.”
As his stamina steadily improved, Stefan participated in a Ride2Recovery challenge, and it became an integral key to his improvement both physically and mentally. The staff at R2R is incredibly organized and knowledgeable about how best to conduct the challenges, making sure the participants are as comfortable as possible throughout the process.
“They’re very knowledgeable about what they’re doing,” Stefan agrees, “so if someone is doing something wrong they can easily correct it so everything runs safer and more smoothly. For instance, they have a ‘pusher’ program so that if you’re a low-rider and you’re working really hard and need a little extra help getting up a hill, they will help you. There are push bars on low-riders so they can put their hands on the small of the back to help. It keeps things controlled instead of letting riders get separated. They help you get back to the group and into the draft and comfortable riding again. It’s what makes these rides a success.”
The idea of being part of a group of people with similar injuries and backstories is another valuable takeaway from the R2R experience. Dr. David Scheinfeld, whose research and practice focuses on the use of therapeutic adventure with military veterans and active duty personnel from the Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn conflicts, stresses that riding as a group for 4 to 6 days, brings people together and builds camaraderie.
“When you begin to hear similar people talk about similar struggles, it can be very normalizing,” believes Scheinfeld. “You realize they’re not unique to you. That sense of universality can reduce negative-thinking patterns about self, which in turn helps reduce anxiety and stress. Also having a sense of purpose and goal-driven activities is very important to help reduce the mind wandering and being frantic—wondering ‘what am I doing with my life’, etc. Having a goal-driven activity like cycling helps set a purpose and drive self-esteem.”
Tangible progress is also powerful motivator for a recovering soldier, and Stefan has accomplished some amazing—almost inconceivable—things over the past year. He ran and completed the Boston Marathon in 6 hours, 43 minutes, 49 seconds this past April (using prosthetic running blades), and a month later rode an upright bicycle at the United Healthcare Memorial Challenge Series Ride, covering 351 miles from the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., to Virginia Beach, Va., over five days.
“I wanted to run immediately after I’d been injured but knew it would be a hard journey,” admits Stefan. “A month after I started running I did a 5K. Eight months after that I did my first half-marathon. Six months after that I did my first marathon, so it was a progression to push myself that far which is just something I really wanted to do. I’d hand-cycled the Boston Marathon twice before, and had met three of the amputees from the Boston bombing while they were receiving treatment at Walter Reed and started running with one of them. We both ran the Disney Half-Marathon together and thought ‘if we could do this, we could do Boston.’
Stefan is a powerful reminder of what a soldier can accomplish against all odds. From Walter Reed to the finish line of the Boston Marathon to riding an upright bicycle into Virginia Beach, his story of tenacity and bravery will serve as an inspiration to many others who have suffered in combat.
Project Hero Magazine will be providing more interviews and stories from Ride2Recovery participating veterans throughout the coming months. Please check back soon for the next installment, and thank you for your support.
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