Former US Army corporal, Roberto Cruz was deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom. On August 14, 2005 while on guard duty in a watchtower in Tikrit, he was shot by a sniper. He could not feel his legs and assumed he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). The bullet ricocheted through his body and lodged in his spinal cord. He remained in a coma for days before awakening to the news that he was paralyzed. Undefeated, he went to physical therapy at James A. Haley, Veterans Hospital in Tampa, FL. It took him two years, but he walked again, unassisted. By transferring an artery from his leg, surgeons saved his arm. Though his left arm is immobile, Roberto has adapted. He is riding.
"I was thinking to bring the bullet that I had been shot with, but was afraid to lose it since it is so small," Roberto recalls with a glimmer in his eyes. "So, I decided to bring all my battle scars that I have been carrying since the day of my injury. The things that changed my life forever!" Cruz celebrated his birthday last week on September 5, 2013, the night before he departed on this historic challenge.
With nothing more than the wet suits on their bodies, GPS to guide them, and granola bars for fuel, the warriors pray as one before embarking on their last day of the 1,600-mile open water challenge. The rising sun illuminates a line of American flags whipping in the wind, forming an ethereal scene of serenity and honor. For the past six days they have traveled the eastern seaboard towards their final destination, Ground Zero.
From Key West to New York City, six teams comprised of military elite, travel by Kawasaki jet skis up the coast in the first ever, Never Quit Challenge. To commemorate September 11th and honor the fallen, this daring excursion mirrors active duty missions while symbolically honoring all veterans in a deep, personal way. Demanding roughly eight hours and 266 miles per day of water that impacts like rock, this journey will rekindle many a soul. The riders brave Mother Nature in memory of their comrades killed in action. It is also a testament for some who lost limbs to the savagery of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Never Quit Challenge launched from Key West on Friday, September 6th and finishes in Battery Park today, September 11, 2013. The Never Quit Foundation, fueled by the proceeds raised from the Challenge, supports three veteran charities: the Boot Campaign, Phoenix Patriot Foundation, and The Station Foundation.
Shawn Alladio, creator of the Never Quit Challenge, is the foremost personal watercraft expert in the country, training lifeguards, military, fire rescue, and law enforcement at her K38 Water Safety school in Coronado, California. "The Challenge brings all of us together; as one community serving all communities, as Americans, Patriots, friends, brothers and sisters, to recognize and assist those who served during and after 9/11 on behalf of the greatest nation gifted by God."
This six-day journey is a moving memorial, as teams ride in honor of fallen comrades, carrying their personal mementos. These mementos are being transported the entire route, invisible hands of the lost, guiding and pushing the riders onward. Military personnel, Regina Feeks rides for her brother, Patrick, killed August 16, 2012 in Afghanistan in a helicopter crash. He carried an American flag on his person up until the moment he was killed in action. Regina now transports his flag, nestled in a plastic waterproof bag stowed in her pack.
Regina lovingly recalls her brother's story telling abilities. "I was always enamored by his recollections of events, especially on his return from trainings; telling of the bonds of brotherhood, exciting adventures, getting lost and found in the woods or surviving on wild carrots." His stories now propel her through the harsh waters towards New York. "I think a lot of my life decisions were prompted by a desire to have my own stories and what better than an epic trip up the coast with some of the nation's greatest patriots, and toughest guys I know. And, for the benefit of soldiers and their families whom we may not know nor get the chance to meet."
After sustaining an injury at Fort Rucker, fellow rider Anthony felt uncomfortable being outdoors until he discovered a way to challenge himself with boating. A T7 and T8 level paraplegic, Anthony requires a wheelchair. "It's funny to see people's reaction when I tell them what am I about to do. There normal response is, 'How are you going to do it? Are they strapping you in the back?'"
His handsome face reveals a huge grin. "This is a big reason why I'm doing the challenge on my personal jet ski! Getting on a watercraft gives me a sense of freedom. I see it as an equalizer. While on it, most who see me can't even tell that I'm a paraplegic. It's one of the most versatile tools I have."
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Anthony was eating breakfast at Fort Bragg. For his trek up the coast, he brings a coin for his friend killed in action. He also has a shot glass. "I plan to make a toast on the water for all who have given their lives. And then I will throw the coin out into the ocean."
On the anniversary of 9/11, the sixth and final day of the Challenge, the veterans are battered by fatigue and physical pain. Here and everywhere, they do what no one else wants to do; they recognize the perils that lie ahead, but serve only to protect the men, women and children of this great nation, and honor those who have done so before. "This is not a puff ride," Anthony states. "It's a challenge ride."