This summer, Marie "Marty" Tracy, will set out on the ride of her life. Though the class of 2002 Westfield High School graduate stayed close to home to attend Fordham University, she has spent the last six months in Afghanistan as a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve working as a logistics advisor at an Afghan National Police regional training center.
"This coming July, four U.S. military veterans and I will partake in an once-in-a-lifetime adventure, known as the Long Road Home Project," Tracy explained. "The Project was conceptualized by Casey Miller, who in the fall of 2010, participated in his own cross-country bike ride from Portland, Ore. to Boston, Mass."
Following his experience, Miller launched The Long Road Home Project, "an endeavor that aims to share the power that a transcontinental bicycle journey can have on the human spirit," said Tracy, who noted that her goal is to spread the word to members of her hometown community before she departs to ensure that the mission is as successful as possible.
Tracy and her fellow riders will begin the 4,200-mile journey on July 15, near Tacoma, Wash. and complete it 90 days when they arrive in Washington D.C.
"Along the way, we will meet, speak, and stay with hundreds of other veterans, shedding light on the question: 'What can we do as a nation to serve our veterans as they come home?'" said Tracy, who explained that for returning veterans uncertainty is often the biggest obstacle they need to overcome.
"It is difficult to predict how we will feel when we return home and transition back to day-to-day life," she said. "This uncertainty presents itself in different forms. Sometimes, it’s difficult to 'just pick up' where we left off. Life in Afghanistan is so radically different from anything with which we are familiar in the United States, and it becomes difficult to integrate those two perspectives."
Tracy said in America she was fortunate enough to live in New York City, have a great job at Columbia University and earn her Master's degree from the University's Department of History. In Afghanistan, she said her days were tasked with advising a group of people on how to best establish security in their country.
"Readjusting post-deployment can be challenging because so few people have ties to the military these days. It becomes difficult to find people who can relate to these experiences," she said.
Tracy said uncertainty for veterans can also come in other, much more palpable forms.
"A couple of my closest military friends served as officers in the Army, one in Field Artillery and the other in Armor Reconnaissance. One of these friends is uncomfortable with being trapped in small places with other people, like a bus or a subway car. My other friend feels overcome by anxiety occasionally. It’s the uncertainty of when veterans will feel overcome by the grief, anxiety, fear or anger that can make this transition period so difficult," she explained.
The Air Force Captain said she believes returning veterans need time and support to process their experiences and to reintegrate themselves into daily life.
"I decided to apply to be part of the Long Road Home Project because the project combines my passion for service and activism with my love for endurance athleticism," she said. "My last six years in the USAF Reserve have made me concerned and invested in veterans’ affairs. What started as a self-directed endeavor to ensure that my Airmen knew and understood the finer details of the Post-9/11 GI Bill has expanded into an interest in the diverse experiences and, thus, needs of veterans.
"Over the last few months of my deployment, I have decided that I want to work for a veterans’ organization when I return home before applying to seminary."
Tracy said she is looking forward to her upcoming journey because her recent experience in Afghanistan has renewed her love and appreciation for her homeland.
"The United States is a beautiful and incredible place, and I am so blessed to have grown up in such a safe and affluent community like Westfield, with a wonderful and supportive family," she said. "In riding across America, I hope to see and explore our country from a new perspective. I believe that life lies in the details. I cannot think of a better way to take in every one of these details than from the seat of a bicycle.
"My time in the military has showed me that there is no singular experience for the veterans of this country. I decided that I wanted to ride across the country because I want to hear the stories of hundreds of different individuals. I want to have the opportunity to talk with veterans whom I would not have the chance to meet otherwise in places that I would not otherwise visit. I want to think about the tough questions that people are hesitant to ask. Are we doing enough? How can we do more? What does it mean to be a veteran in 2012?"
Tracy enumerated the goals The Long Road Home Project aims to accomplish:
1) To capture the emotional, spiritual, and healing transformations that only a long distance bicycle ride can provide;
2) To inspire other veterans, as well as non-military civilians, to overcome their own challenges;
3) To provide an opportunity to the four veterans to see first-hand the beauty of the country that we defended;
4) To educate the general public about the numerous challenges faced by our veterans returning home after years in service to our country; and
5) To allow both the veterans who are riding and those following their ride the chance to experience our nation’s gratitude for their service.
For more information about the ride, visit the Project’s website or visit the Facebook page. If anyone is interested or willing to donate to the Project, Tracy and her team would be very grateful for the support. The following website has more information about the Project and how to donate to it: http://www.indiegogo.com/Long-Road-Home-Project. The team is nearly halfway to its $75,000 goal. Each rider is hoping to raise approximately $5,000.