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Afghanistan vet Justin Gaertner, Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Belgium

At the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, 19 miles east of Liège, Belgium, identical white marble crosses or Stars of David mark the graves of 7,992 U.S. soldiers killed during the Battle of the Bulge. Marine Corporal Justin Gaertner, 23, rolls slowly in his wheelchair as he heads down a perfectly symmetrical row of gravesites arrayed in a gentle arc across a lush green lawn. Justin’s main expertise as a combat engineer is finding roadside bombs, and his hyper vigilance is evident now as he advances methodically from one headstone to the next, noting the name, rank, unit, home state and date of death. Strangely, the headstones don’t record dates of birth for the soldiers, who were mostly 19 or 20 years old, about the same age Justin was when he went to Afghanistan. Nor is there any hint of the chaotic circumstances in which the men died nearly three quarters of a century ago. “I can’t fathom what it was like to be in the boots of the guys in the Battle of the Bulge,” says Justin. “But if you’ve been through the hard-core stuff—crazy firefights and losing guys—going to the cemetery brings back memories.”

The day after Thanksgiving 2010, Justin slipped into a brand new pair of Oakley combat boots that “felt really good, really comfortable,” and led a convoy of mine­sweeping vehicles on a route-clearing mission in Marjah, Afghanistan. He would never wear those boots again. “It was just a normal day, simple route, nothing complicated,” he says. “Then everything went upside down. It was madness.” A roadside bomb exploded under one vehicle, and Justin walked over to make sure the driver was OK. “He was good.” While Justin continued checking for other explosives, his best friend, Gabriel Martinez, rolled up in another minesweeping vehicle. “I was just getting ready to talk with him when he got blown up in front of me,” he says. Moments later another bomb exploded. “I was so shell-shocked I didn’t realize that it was me who had been hit. I had a big piece of glass sticking out of my stomach. My left arm was torn to shreds. And my legs were gone.” Within minutes Justin was loaded onto a helicopter with Gabriel, who had survived but also lost both of his legs. “He had no idea I had gotten blown up,” says Justin. “We both broke down in tears when we saw each other.”

The memory shard that Justin can’t get out of his head is Gabriel’s initial cry for help. “I can still hear him screaming,” he says. “I hear it all the time.”

Justin lingers in front of each headstone as he rolls past the graves of young men who from a bird’s-eye historical perspective are mostly anonymous casualties of the epic World War II battle in which the Allies delivered the coup de grâce to Nazi Germany. Soldiers who have had their boots on the ground know that war is not just a titanic clash of countries or ideologies, but also an intensely personal conflict: It is about killing or being killed. And only those who have been in combat know what that feels like. Which is why Justin and 84 other young men and women who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to Belgium to make an arduous midsummer cycling journey through the dense forests of the Ardennes. There, in the company of three generations of soldiers, dead and alive, they will charge up one steep hill after another and seek to quiet the ghostly cries of pain in their heads.

The weeklong, 380-mile tour is run by Ride2Recovery, a nonprofit group that organizes cycling programs and special events for military rehabilitation centers across the United States. Justin is one of three hand cyclists on the tour. The rest of the injured soldiers, along with 35 staff and guest cyclists, ride standard bicycles. A few of the riders have prosthetic arms or legs, but most are recovering from invisible wounds that range from shattered bones to post-traumatic stress. Two Battle of the Bulge veterans accompany the cyclists by car: George Ciampa, 87, who served with a Graves Registration burial unit, and William Novelli, 89, who was with the 4th Armored Division, 3rd Army, led by General George Patton. One inextricable bond unites the soldiers from the outset. They have all experienced the hellish chaos of war, as well as the chaos that persists in the minds of combat soldiers long after the fighting is done.

The horrors that soldiers witness in combat rewire their brains permanently in ways that are incomprehensible to anyone who has never been to war. After World War II, American soldiers were welcomed home as heroes, but many endured a lifetime of recurring nightmares in silence. Post-traumatic stress has afflicted frontline soldiers throughout history, but it wasn’t classified as a serious disability until the Vietnam era. Severely wounded soldiers are much more likely to survive now thanks to speedy evacuation and high-tech advances in trauma care. But by some estimates more than one in three American soldiers who return from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from debilitating post-traumatic stress or from concussive brain injuries caused most frequently by bomb blasts. Often the battles raging inside their heads end in suicide. On average, one American soldier is killed in Afghanistan every day. Meanwhile, 18 veterans kill themselves every day.

Combat soldiers have always been a tribe apart. No matter how sympathetic their friends and family may be when they return, the only people who really understand their traumas are other soldiers. What distinguishes the soldiers in this bicycle tour is their extraordinary personal courage and their unwavering commitment to two bedrock tenets of the modern Soldier’s Creed: “I will never accept defeat” and “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” The strongest hill climbers do not break away. They stay with the pack and literally push some of the weaker cyclists up the ascents. Day after day, night after night, bonds of friendship are strengthened among soldiers who will need each other’s continued emotional support after the tour, as they struggle to keep their demons at bay.

George Ciampa has been to the Henri-Chapelle cemetery several times. It is always an emotional experience. “It’s an eerie feeling to walk through the graves because I stop and wonder, ‘Did I handle this body?’?” he says. When he was drafted in 1944, George wanted to follow his older brother Richard into the Army Air Corps—“a glorious part of the service”—but instead was assigned to a Graves Registration company. “When I found out I’d be gathering dead bodies on battlefields, I was horrified. I grew up in an Italian family in Boston, and I’d had a real intense fear of death ever since they had an open-casket wake for my grandfather in my house when I was 7.” George was a baby-faced 18-year-old, 5 foot 6 inches tall and barely 112 pounds, when he arrived at Utah Beach, in Normandy, on D-Day. “Going in we could hear the 88 artillery shells screaming overhead. I couldn’t swim and was scared of drowning. There were bodies in the water and all over the beach. We started picking up dead paratroopers and wrapped them in their parachutes to bury them in temporary graves. Others we buried in mattress covers. A lot of these guys were buried three or four times before they ended up in a permanent cemetery. It was difficult to look at the faces. But impossible not to.”

After handling corpses for a couple of weeks as his company followed the troops moving inland, George broke down. “They didn’t baby guys in World War II, so a lieutenant ordered me to just get back with it,” he says. “I had to deal with the constant stench of death in my clothes and in my shoes. Sleeping in foxholes. Dry mouth. Spitting all the time. I worked like a zombie, with only one day off for many months. Our company buried 75,000 soldiers, including Germans, in temporary cemeteries throughout France, Belgium and eventually Germany. By the time we bivouacked at the little village of Henri-Chapelle and built a temporary cemetery in the woods, it was winter. The coldest winter in 30 years. We didn’t have the stench anymore, but we had to deal with frozen bodies. All those bodies were disinterred four years later when they built the permanent cemetery.”

Even soldiers who go through rigorous combat training are ill-prepared for the carnage of war. Justin was no exception. Growing up in Clearwater, Fla., “I was a mama’s boy and a band geek. I originally wanted to play the tuba and trumpet in the Marine Corps band.” But he had a change of heart when he signed his enlistment papers and told the recruiter he wanted to be a heavy equipment operator, like his older brother, David, who had joined the Marines two years earlier. “After boot camp they said, ‘You’re going to be a combat engineer. You’re going to look for bombs,’?” Justin says. “I was like, ‘Whoa, get me out.’ I was so scared.”

Justin’s first firefight occurred in Lashker Gah, in southern Afghanistan, in June 2009, while he was manning a 50-caliber machine gun atop an armored vehicle in a route-clearing convoy. “A couple of pot shots hit our vehicles going into town. I could see guys ducking between buildings, but the sun was in my eyes and I didn’t want to let loose on the 50-cal. and hit someone else. You need positive identification,” he says. “Then on our way out of town we got ambushed on both sides and everything went crazy. I could put myself there now. It was so intense. Not only was it the first time I was under fire, but I also got confirmed kills and could see who I was shooting.” Justin was in shock for several days. “I got extremely sick and the other guys took care of me. After my first firefight, everything was different. That’s when I became a man.”

But not a hardened one. Justin is bright-eyed and cheerful during a side trip two miles from the Henri-Chapelle cemetery to visit the Remember Museum run by George’s longtime friends, Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz. Marcel was 7 years old when the Germans annexed his village in May 1940. His family hid his older brother, Henri, between two walls in an upstairs bedroom of their farmhouse to keep him from being pressed into service by the Nazis. During the Battle of the Bulge, 110 soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) took up temporary residence on the Schmetz farm. Marcel has fond memories of playing with some of the soldiers and watching them string hand grenades on Christmas trees. One night the GIs moved out suddenly, leaving behind military equipment and personal belongings that are included in a vast collection of artifacts and memorabilia Marcel amassed following the war. They are housed in two old buildings on his ancestral farm.

While other cyclists ramble through the homespun museum, Marcel shows Justin an original metal “jerrycan”—a fuel canister with Luftwaffe markings—and explains how the Germans designed it with three parallel handles on top so a single individual could carry at least four cans at once, instead of two. “We still use the same old stuff,” Justin told Marcel. “Except our cans are plastic rather than metal.” Later Mathilde Schmetz tells the group of young soldiers that one consequence of the Battle of the Bulge was that thousands of Belgian girls married American GIs. “But some came back to Belgium because it didn’t always work out.”

“We’re like a rolling MASH unit going down the road,” says Ride2Recovery national ride director Jim Penseyres, who joined the Marines in 1966, at age 19. Two weeks before he was scheduled to complete a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968, he stepped on a land mine in a free-fire zone near Da Nang and lost the lower half of his left leg. When he got home to southern California and was outfitted with an artificial leg, the first thing he wanted to do was go surfing. “In those days the Veterans Administration discouraged physical activity,” Jim says. “But I just kept bringing back a waterlogged prosthetic every six months and they had to replace it.” He later took up competitive cycling and in 1990 logged his best time in the Race Across America, riding solo from coast to coast in 10 days and 17 hours.

Jim says military culture has changed since World War II and the Vietnam era, because soldiers are no longer rotated into and out of battlefield units like replacement parts. “These guys train together as a unit, fight as a unit, and then come out as a unit. It’s a double-edged sword because they get to know each other well but that closeness makes it a lot harder when they start losing people. Our idea with these rides is to help re-create the sense of cohesiveness and camaraderie that comes with being part of a unit. That is especially important for the guys and gals with severe post-traumatic stress, some of whom have doubts when they go into a hospital whether they can even handle life anymore. It’s the peer-to-peer reassurance they get on rides like this that gives them what they need.”

Riders on the tour are grouped in five smaller units, about the size of small platoons. On the fourth day, Jim’s unit stops in the Bois Jacques Forest to visit a monument to E Company of the U.S. 101st Airborne. Everyone is eager to hunker in the foxholes where paratroopers endured a heavy artillery barrage. Corporal Felix Rauer, 25, one of six riders from the German army, gets in a prone position and pretends to aim a rifle at his American friends. “You let the wrong guy down here,” he jokes. Both of Felix’s grandfathers fought for Germany during World War II. One was originally slated to go to Stalingrad in 1942, Felix says, but “got lucky and was sent to Kursk and later Italy. He was captured by the British but eventually escaped and walked over the Alps to get home.” The other was pressed into service as soon as he turned 17 in the winter of 1945 and was sent to the Eastern Front after just a few weeks training. “He was so weak he barely survived.”

Felix’s jocular demeanor masks a toughness acquired during three combat tours in Afghanistan. In June 2010, a bomb exploded under his armored vehicle while he was on patrol with a mechanized infantry unit, and doctors had to reinforce his broken back with a steel plate. Nine months later he went snowboarding.

Felix often rides his bicycle with reckless abandon, as if he’s harboring a death wish. Less than an hour after his unit leaves the foxholes, Felix’s back tire blows out as he takes a steep downhill curve far too quickly. He skids off the road, landing in bushes that prevent him from tumbling down a steep slope. He walks away with bad bruises and lots of road rash, but no broken bones. Later, he is the butt of jokes during dinner when his fellow riders present him with a T-shirt emblazoned Rex Easley.

“In the Army there are good units and there are bad units,” says William Novelli, who the riders affectionately call Uncle Willie. “The 4th Armored Division, 3rd Army, was probably the best unit of all time. The Germans said it, and they should know.” Willie was with the 4th Armored Division, General George Patton’s spearhead unit, when it advanced through France and Belgium to break the German siege of Bastogne on December 26, 1944. “My job was to guard the radar truck they used to detect German air attacks,” he says. “We moved very fast, covering more than 50 miles a day. Along the way I went from private to sergeant and my pay went from $28 a month to $78 a month. It was like winning the lottery. But mainly I was just trying to stay alive.” Willie could barely walk after a V-2 missile exploded nearby on January 15, 1945, knocking him out. “They waved a metal detector over me and couldn’t find any shrapnel, so they sent me back into battle. I slept every night on the frozen ground with only a thin bedroll and no overcoat. It was brutal.”

During a visit to the Patton Museum in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg, Willie stands in front of a 15-foot-high statue of the general and mesmerizes tour participants with personal stories of the Battle of the Bulge. A bout with throat cancer has left his voice raspy and his speech at times incomprehensible. But that hardly matters. “Guys hang on every word from Uncle Willie because a lot of them view Patton as the greatest general we’ve ever had,” says Ride2Recovery founder John Wordin. The next day, Novelli’s eyes are moist when he lays a wreath of flowers on Patton’s grave at the American military cemetery outside Luxembourg City.

Willie Novelli, a veteran of Patton's 3rd Army, salutes his former commander“Accept the challenges so that you can experience the exhilaration of victory,” Patton once declared. For those on the Battle of the Bulge tour, an immediate payoff for completing more than 22,000 feet of climbing during seven days of riding is the chance to share the stage of the world’s most prestigious bike race. On day two of the Tour de France, the soldiers ride 18 miles of the course several hours before the professional racers and are cheered on by hundreds of spectators who have gathered along the road. They arrive in the town of Tournai, Belgium, as one tight unit, and the crowd roars its approval when the three hand cyclists sprint to the finish line. One gets a friendly push from another rider and, in a neck-and-neck finish, Justin surges forward to claim victory.

Afterward, Justin seems slightly embarrassed to have left his buddies behind. “We pretty much came in together,” he says. Justin has garnered numerous athletic accolades during his recovery. He was the star of the 2012 Warrior Games, an Olympic-style competition for soldiers and veterans, taking multiple medals in hand cycling and wheelchair racing, as well as wheelchair basketball. But he plans to take a break from major athletic events for a while. “It’s coming to an end so I can focus on school,” he says. He is headed to Washington, D.C., after the tour to complete an internship with the National Counterterrorism Center. “I’m working with a bunch of guys with doctorates on the presidential policy directive for improvised explosive devices,” he says. “It’s crazy. I’m actually doing stuff for the president.” He’s slated to enroll in TRACK, a college prep program for wounded warriors in Jacksonville, Fla., with the goal of working for Homeland Security or the Central Intelligence Agency. “Some people say you only live once. But I’m living it a second time because I was gone there for a bit. I’ve done more without my legs than I did with my legs.”

Not all the cyclists on the tour have as much to look forward to. “It’s a huge letdown for some after a tour is done,” says Jim Penseyres. “When they get together on Facebook, they almost cry for help. Fortunately, many of them use Facebook to mentor each other.” The injured soldiers he worries about the most are the ones who aren’t motivated to take on rehabilitation programs available to them. “On our rides you see the best of the best—the guys and gals you can’t help enough because they want to get better,” he says. “What you don’t see are the kids who are still in the hospital and don’t want to come out for any events because it’s just too much effort.”

In Iraq or Afghanistan, these young soldiers could count on other members of their units to never leave them behind. Now all too many are without a tribe and remain at high risk of losing the war inside their heads.