KEY WEST -- At 24, Bo Reichenbach felt like Superman. He was on top of the world, a Navy SEAL in the best shape of his life. Then, at the end of a patrol in Afghanistan on July 17, 2012, he stepped on a wood pressure plate.
In an instant, his left leg was gone, his right leg was filled with metal fragments, his right arm was too damaged even to secure a tourniquet and his life as he knew it was blown away by the homemade bomb.
The past year has been hell. He has endured more than 20 medical procedures that included amputation of his right leg, But each time he began to feel sorry for himself, Reichenbach said, he stopped before things would go downhill real fast. “It’s all mental toughness,” he said.
And, he added, “I can’t quit on myself because that would be a poor example for my 5-year-old son, Landon. He’s the big reason I have to live. And he thinks this is the coolest thing ever. That I’ve got Iron Man legs.”
Landon thinks his dad’s next endeavor is pretty cool, too. Reichenbach is riding for Team Spartan in the first Never Quit Challenge, a journey on Jet Skis to honor the fallen and to raise awareness and funds for three grassroots organizations that help veterans and their families: Phoenix Patriot Foundation, Boot Campaign and The Station Foundation.
The six-team challenge, which began before sunrise Friday morning in Key West, will travel 1,600 miles up the eastern seaboard and end on Sept. 11 in New York, with the city’s fire department set to welcome them at the finish line. The teams, with two to four members, average 266 miles per day. About the only change Reichenbach made to his Jet Ski was “reupholstering his seat with sticky stuff” so he’ll not go flying out of his seat so much over the waves.
Members of the Key West Police Department escorted the teams to the Garrison Bight Marina for the launch. After the short 164-mile first leg, the teams arrived at the Rickenbacker Marina on Virginia Key at 6 p.m. with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and Gloria Estefan greeting them.
The challenge was the brainchild of Shawn Alladio, who founded a company called K38 Water Safety that teaches the military and others how to safely operate personal water craft and how to perform rescues. At the opening party Thursday night, Alladio told the group of 17 riders, support crew and family: “Especially with the war efforts we’ve engaged in the last decade and since the terrorist attacks of 9-11 in our country … we do have the responsibility, I believe, as patriots and as Americans, to take care of our own.”
About 2.5 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan the past 12 years, with 6,756 deaths. About 50,000 have returned home with physical injuries, and many more who’ve served have mental health problems. Most everyone will have some difficulty re-entering civilian life.
With budget cuts in federal aid for veterans, it’s become even more important for nonprofits to help fill the void.
“There are not enough foundations out there,” said Darrin Isham, active duty special forces in the Navy and owner of Trident Outdoor Adventures, which is helping to run the challenge. “We need everyone’s help to get involved. Having been on the battlefield five times myself, [I know] guys get wounded and need help. A lot of people don’t realize, in my opinion, that this is the longest sustained warfare we’ve had in our nation’s history.”
Retired Navy SEAL Jared Ogden founded the San Diego-based Phoenix Patriot Foundation in honor of his platoon commander, Lt. Dan Cnossen, who lost both of his legs after stepping on an improvised explosive devise on his first day as a lieutenant in Afghanistan.
“I live in a house full of Navy SEALs, and we got out a whiteboard and came up with ideas and we came up with a mission,” Ogden said. “We do cool challenge events to get guys back in the saddle and fired up. We get them engaged with life again.”
Ogden was inspired by the spirit of Cnossen, who is a medal hopeful in the biathlon for the United States and the upcoming Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. “Dan is a bad-ass guy who never asks for a thing,” Ogden said. “But one day he called me up and asked whether we could help get him a hand cycle he needed for his training when the snow melted.”
The foundation also has helped Tomy Parker, a Marine who became a triple amputee at age 22, with his goal of becoming a politician. “We got him a nice computer and an iPad, stuff he needs to help with the financial burden that the Yellow Ribbon and GI Bill don’t help out with,” Ogden said. “Our mission is to help veterans return to a life of service.”
Ogden said the biggest travesty at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is “guys who give up on life and just collect a disability check. Return to service can simply be becoming a taxpaying citizen. It’s bad when you lose the will to continue to excel.”
Ogden and Reichenbach are riding in honor of Navy SEAL Patrick Feeks, 28, who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan a year ago. Feeks had been a roommate of Ogden’s.
Feeks’ sister, Regina, will ride a Jet Ski in his honor. The American flag that was in the battlefield when Feeks died is being carried along the challenge route. “The flag is the sacred embodiment of the spirit of not only Patrick, but his family and loved ones and the nation as well,” Alladio said.
The Kawasak Ultra LX Jet Skis were rigged to carry 20 extra gallons of fuel. But they still will stop about every 60 miles for refueling and rider changes. After each day’s journey the challenge will stop and hold awareness events to help get out the word about the young foundations that are doing good work but desperately need funding.
Joe Sakellar, who has been in the Army 15 years — part of the time in special operations as a Night Stalker — said his Team Havoc is riding in tribute of Turbine 33, a Chinook helicopter that was shot down trying to rescue a Navy SEAL team in 2005. All 16 on board died.
“At the same time, we’re also riding for the Station Foundation as well — for the veterans who are still here,” he said.
The Station Foundation was founded in 2011 by Kevin Stacy, an aviator in the Army. In October 2012 it began offering programs that help the special operations community readjust to the real world. The programs are held on a ranch in Montana, and tailored to the needs of the warriors and their families.
“I know the name doesn’t sound very patriotic,” said Stacy’s wife Shannon, who volunteers full-time at the foundation. But she said it comes from Kevin’s experience at Grand Central Station in New York, where he always needed to ask for help to get where he was going.
“Sometimes families are going in the right direction and need help to keep going in the right direction and sometimes they veer off track and need help getting back on track,” Stacy said.
The Boot Campaign was founded in 2009 by five women from Texas who were moved by Lone Survivor, a book by Marcus Luttrell. They began by selling boots to create awareness for the needs of veterans. Proceeds raised by the organization go to assist wounded military and their families with job placement, mortgage free homes, PTSD counseling and other needs.
“When you are in veteran services, you are in the business of storytelling,” said Brandi Hodge, Boot Campaign’s director of digital engagement. “The average civilian or American doesn’t know what they went through, what the recovery process is, and where they are now. Guys are out there lacing up boots all over the world to fight for our freedoms.”
Ogden said the lucky ones are the ones who return home in one piece. “Two other guys stepped on that same pressure plate before Bo did. He weighed more or was weighted down a little more.”
Reichenbach, of Billings, Mont., gave up his dream of playing professional hockey to join the Navy in 2008. The terrorist attacks of 9-11 were part of the reason. He said he has no regrets.
“No, I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. “I’m happy with where I’m at and I’m looking forward. I can’t think about the past. It’s the past.”
To donate, go to www.neverquitchallenge.com. All proceeds will be split evenly among the three foundations.