CRAWFORD — Keeping up with a 66-year-old ex-president was the challenge Friday for 14 young U.S. soldiers wounded in the country’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the second day of the three-day 100-kilometer ride, George W. Bush led the group for 30 miles across his 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch, outside of Crawford, about 50 miles northeast of Killeen.
“He’s in great shape,” retired Staff Sgt. Omar Romney said, after finishing Friday’s 30-mile ride. “I was asking him to take it easy on us and he was kind enough to oblige.”
The soldiers carried extraordinary handicaps, such as retired Staff Sgt. Michael DeWitt, who lost both arms to a rocket-propelled grenade explosion in Iraq.
Out of respect for the soldiers’ handicaps, the president explained the humility of his advantage.
“I am amazed, I’m riding with a guy who’s got a prosthesis and thankfully he held back,” Bush said.
The event brought awareness to the many organizations that help veterans recover from battle, including Team 4Mil, the Navy Seal Foundation and the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge.
Sgt. 1st Class Manuel Colón, 39, rode the 30-mile route Friday while recovering from treatment of several battle wounds and cancer.
“After all of the things I’ve done, I’ve never done anything like this,” Colón said.
The active-duty soldier began his career as a soldier in Killeen in 1993, signing up at a recruiting office at the Killeen Mall, he said.
Colón deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 with the 25th Infantry Division. Although he and his unit sustained rocket attacks and other explosions in Afghanistan, it wasn’t until he returned from the front lines that he learned he had been injured.
“I’m one of those soldiers, I don’t go to the hospital until the last second,” Colón said.
On his way out of Afghanistan, he noticed a bump on his head and thought nothing of it. A few weeks later, having trouble fitting into his helmet, he finally went to the doctor.
With characteristic stoicism, the soldier faced a multiple diagnosis of stage 4 follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma — the cause of the bump — post-traumatic stress disorder and several mild traumatic brain injuries.
“If it hadn’t have been for that bump, I wouldn’t have ever known,” Colón said.
The Army stationed him in Orlando, where he remains under medical review and “the best treatment in the world,” he said.
Sharing the trail with other veterans Friday, some with missing limbs and PTSD, humbled Colón, giving him the sense of camaraderie he has always loved in his military service.
“We have our military culture, we have a lot in common and this puts us back together,” Colón said.
Bush and Fort Hood
Since leaving office in 2009, Bush has stayed out of the limelight; however, his focus on the military has remained strong.
“I don’t miss much about being president but what I do miss is saluting our soldiers,” Bush said during a pre-ride news conference.
After purchasing his Crawford ranch in 1999 at the end of his term as governor of Texas, the land quickly became his favorite getaway — just miles from Fort Hood’s training areas.
Bush said he remembered, during his governorship, when he used to “chopper over (from the ranch to Fort Hood) every Easter.”
“Well, maybe not every Easter,” Bush said. “In my line of work you have got to be careful not to exaggerate.”