SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Michael Lage probably shouldn't be here.
"In 2007, my convoy was hit by an IED. My vehicle had five people in it," Lage recalled.
"I was the only survivor."
He lost his left hand and right thumb in the attack, and he suffered severe burns. For many people, such injuries would make a 500-mile bicycle ride across Texas impossible.
But there's a reason wounded warriors are heroes to the rest of us.
On the Sunday morning just before Veterans Day, Lage joined a group of 24 bicyclists to form Ride Texas 2012, an event in its second year organized by Ken Holder's group Warriors on Wheels.
Family and friends waved as the riders took off in a caravan heading for Wichita Falls. On the van ride up, there was plenty of time to think about the grueling journey ahead.
Why we ride
While Janice Raznowski is focused on helping wounded service members through her organization, Operation Comfort, those who have benefitted from her huge heart are eager to focus some of that attention back on her.
Ivan Valentin is one of those heroes.
"She used to be an international flight attendant traveling to Afghanistan and all these different places," Valentin said. It was on these trips that Janice met injured soldiers in the hospital and struck up conversations with them.
"She would ask them, 'What would you like to do?' and some of the guys would say, 'I like playing hockey,' 'I like riding cycles.' She said, 'We'll make that happen.'"
Janice Raznowski has kept her word.
Since 2004, Operation Comfort has made an incredible impact by giving back to those who have given so much.
The San Antonio-based organization helps wounded warriors recovering at San Antonio Military Medical Center rehabilitate with activities like hand-cycling, skiing, sled hockey and surfing -- activities many thought they'd never be able to enjoy again.
"We do what we can for them and consider ourselves the first step for physical and therapeutic rehabilitation," Raznowski said.
But on this day, it was the wounded warriors giving back to Janice. Many of them were on this ride. And as the 24 cyclists pulled into Wichita Falls for the start of the journey, every dollar raised on every mile of Ride Texas 2012 was pledged to go right back to Operation Comfort so the work can continue.
It's go time
On Nov. 5, the air was charged with a mix of excitement, nerves and the sounds of motorcycles as the Patriot Guard in Wichita Falls roared their engines and led the 24 cyclists into the first mile of their trip.
Only 499 left to go.
With the wind at his back, Joel Sauceda, a San Antonio Internet entrepreneur and former Air National Guard member, felt confident and inspired. There was a good reason.
"I had the honor of pushing a Purple Heart recipient by the name of Charles Lemon," Sauceda said. "He's a double-amputee, and the guy has the best attitude of anyone I've ever met in my life."
Lemon, a wounded warrior in his 20s, lost his legs in Afghanistan. During that attack, Lemon also lost a buddy who died in his arms.
On this 500-mile journey, Sauceda and Lemon worked together to push through the pain and exhaustion, mile after mile.
"I had the honor of helping him up hills and chasing him down hills," Sauceda laughed. "I looked at him and saw how much determination he had, and it helped me forget the pain I had. I made a friend for life."
Rolling through Fort Worth and then through Waco, the first legs of the trip were deceiving. After about 200 miles on the road, fatigue and reality began to set in -- just as the hills around Austin loomed ahead.
"There were tears climbing those hills," Sauceda said. "Not only did we have hills, we had head winds of 30 miles per hour."
The gusts were strong enough to knock one rider off his bike, and it was the moment Joel first had doubt. "That was the time of the trip I wondered if I was going to make it."
The Texas Spirit
While it was Mother Nature exhausting the 24 warriors, it was the Texas spirit that re-energized the group.
As the cyclists pedaled their way into small towns, elementary school kids were waiting with high fives and cheers. High school bands trumpeted victory songs -- enough motivation to inspire the riders into San Antonio and a day of rest.
On day six, 358 miles into the journey, the warriors on wheels woke up and again hit the road on their way to another surprise just 85 miles ahead.
The town of Beeville was waiting with open arms.
"The city literally shut down for us," Sauceda said. "People on both sides of the streets (were) waving American flags, and as we rode through, I looked right and left and saw the riders, tears streaming down their faces."
The town opened its hearts to the riders and offered up a place to rest for the final and perhaps most challenging leg ahead.
The final day
On Veterans Day -- Sunday, Nov. 11 -- Michael Lage, Ivan Valentin, Joel Sauceda, Charles Lemon and the others finally could see light at the end of the tunnel. Corpus Christi was on their minds.
Exhausted but determined, the cyclists barreled through strong headwinds like before, but by now this wasn't a group of individual riders, but a unit.
What began days earlier as a cast of friends and acquaintances had been transformed into a family forged over hundreds of miles of long Texas roads.
For Ivan Valentin, whose wounds were the result of a motorcycle accident, the final mile represented an even longer, more emotional journey.
"When you go through a serious injury like this, you go through different stages," Valentin said. "For me, I was stuck in the anger stage for the longest time."
Watching other wounded warriors with missing limbs working through painful therapy with a smile changed his thinking and his life.
"My main goal was to finish, and I'm glad I was able to accomplish that," Valentin said.
Joel Sauceda said the ride made him a changed man. The final mile over the Bay Bridge once again found him inspired by his wounded warrior buddy Charles Lemon.
"He starts peddling up the bridge, and I'm having to chase him and tell him I don't know how much I got left!" Sauceda said. "We all just hugged, kissed each other and cried with each other and ended the ride at the base of the bridge."
And for Michael Lage, the wounded warrior who was the sole survivor in that IED attack, the end of Ride Texas 2012 had one meaning.
"Just because you're wounded or that you lost a limb or hurt, you don't have to stop doing what you love to do or learn new things," he said. "One door closes because you're hurt, but other doors open. Just continue to live your life."
They lived a lifetime of memories together in 501 miles over six days crossing the hills and plains of Texas.
- Ride Texas 2012 has raised more than $26,000 so far, thanks to a corporate donation from Whataburger in San Antonio.
- All proceeds benefit Operation Comfort. To learn more, visit www.Operationcomfort.org
- Joel Sauceda, an Internet entrepreneur and 2012 Ride Texas member, has committed to being the major sponsor of Ride Texas 2013 through his business:
- To learn more about the Warriors on Wheels bicycle club, visit www.wowcycling.org.