The birds can be heard singing as the sun rises over the ridge. There is a coolness in the air as the color of the leaves change and begin their decent to the forest floor. Everything is still for a moment. It isn’t long before the sounds of nature are joined by the ticking of a chain moving through the crank. The breeze in the canopy is met with the gasps of air as the lungs scream for oxygen and sweat from the brow joins the moisture of the earth. Pisgah National Forest plays host to many daring souls seeking adventure on two wheels. But, this time is different.
Peace of Adventure joined with The Bike Farm in Brevard to launch a program designed to empower veterans to serve civilians with disabilities through a week of mountain biking. Coming from Charlotte, a group of Army veterans serve as mentors to participants with spinal cord injuries and blindness. From tandem bikes to off-road handcycles from ReActive Adaptations, participants are tackling the trails with fierce determination to step outside their comfort zone and come together as a team.
For Tommy Rieman, an Army veteran, the timing of his Peace of Adventure trip was perfect. Rieman, like many military veterans, spent the majority of his career with a level of responsibility and purpose difficult to replicate in his transition to civilian society. After leading a successful veteran nonprofit for nearly two years, Rieman found himself unemployed and considering the simple solution to his problems…suicide.
“Losing my job felt like a significant loss,” claims Rieman. “I no longer felt valuable and I really began feeling sorry for myself. Suicide was not just an ideation for me, I started to walk through the actual steps in my mind. At that moment in my life, Peace of Adventure gave me a glimpse of something to look forward to. I wasn’t completely sure what to expect, but time in the mountains sounded like a good start.”
Rieman arrived at The Bike Farm ready to get out of his own head, experience nature and push himself to learn something new, but his experience was much deeper. Rieman shared a tent with two individuals living with severe spinal cord injuries—one more recent than the other—and quickly learned a level of perspective not previously understood.
“I was asked to serve as a mentor to these guys, but I quickly found myself gaining more from them,” Rieman explains. “Jason wakes up in the middle of the night feeling like his legs are on fire and Brandon is constantly uncomfortable with relentless and uncontrollable spasms. It was humbling to watch them push hard despite their circumstances.”
On the evening of December 9, 2015, Brandon Shelvin was enjoying a night out with friends when his life changed forever. While turning his vehicle around in a charlotte parking lot, Shelvin was held at gunpoint by a man demanding his car. Thinking about the safety of his passenger, Shelvin made the quick decision to evade the criminal and was shot in the arm. The bullet entered his arm, passed through his body and severely injured his spinal cord between the T-4 and T-5 vertebrae. Shelvin arrived at the hospital without any feeling or movement in his lower body.
Following months of rehabilitation and intense workouts with his team of specialists at Race to Walk in Mooresville, North Carolina, Shelvin was motivated to get his life back and walk again. However, his focused attention on one mission came at a cost.
“After my injury, a lot of my friends began to disappear and I became comfortable in the solitude of my house,” says Shelvin. “Joining Peace of Adventure made me realize how much I missed socializing with other people and the importance of getting out and living my life despite my injury.”
Shelvin arrived at The Bike Farm anticipating a unique opportunity to learn a new sport, but the lessons he gained were much greater. Having been injured less than a year prior, Shelvin was still learning to cope with his injury and navigate his new life. And as the week progressed, he began to realize the power of trusting those around him.
“Towards the ladder part of the trip, Brandon started to really pick it up,” says Rieman. “Brandon was out of his comfort zone on some things but trusted those around him. Through all of this, a bond was formed that really brought us together as a squad.”
To say that the experience was a success would be an understatement. Since joining Peace of Adventure for a week in the mountains, both Shelvin and Rieman have a renewed motivation to continue moving forward in community. Shelvin continues to push himself physically with the goal of walking again. But rather than focusing solely on his legs, he has a renewed motivation on whole health—both physically and socially. Rieman returned from his trip with renewed passion for his faith and a motivation to ensure his fellow veterans in the community get the same opportunity to find themselves through service.
“Peace of Adventure introduced me to something I would have never done on my own,” says Rieman. “I take the lessons I learned and continue to apply to my life because I’m way more capable. I don’t know my true limitations until I push it.”
Outdoor recreation often proves to be therapeutic, but the week in the mountains for this group was the kicking off point to the true purpose of the organization. The beautiful surroundings of The Bike Farm combined with the challenging days on the trail set the tone for our participants to become a true squad with a true purpose and a responsibility for one another. Peace of Adventure believes in long-term care and connection, and takes an innovative approach to making sure participants remain engaged and active long after the event is over.
In today’s landscape, veteran suicide is a real problem and often stems from society’s inability to effectively reintegrate veterans back into civilian life. Peace of Adventure exists to open doors for the disability community and believe veterans are well-suited to lead the way. Through this relationship, purpose is restored, community is formed and the bonds of a squad exist in civilian life.