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Inspired by years of evacuation missions, March pilot co-founds fundraising ride for wounded warriors

  • Published
  • By Megan Just
  • 452 AMW Public Affairs
Paul Thompson and John Greenway grew up together in Oklahoma. Years later, as neighbors in Mesa, Ariz., the two were road biking together when Greenway recounted his recent trip to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Calif., to watch his 19-year-old nephew graduate from recruit training.

"I was so humbled by the commitment, the sacrifice all these young people were willing to make," Greenway said. "I looked at these kids and I looked at the drill instructors and it hit me that they're not doing this for money or glory or fame. These kids are doing it for a love of country, a love of God. Could there be anything greater than that?"

While at the graduation, Greenway was moved to do something to help servicemembers, but having never served in the military, he wasn't sure what was most needed.

"It was an overwhelming feeling," he said. "It's all I could think about for the next two or three days. I've taken the military for granted all these years and I realized these are real people making real sacrifices so guys like me can live this wonderful life in the greatest country in the world."

On the ride, when Greenway asked Thompson, an Air Force reservist, what they could do to help, Thompson knew the answer immediately: help wounded warriors.

Air evacuation
Thompson is a pilot for United Airlines, but the airline's Airbus aircraft aren't the only ones he flies. Thompson is also a lieutenant colonel C-17 Globemaster III pilot with the 729th Airlift Squadron at March Air Reserve Base. While Colonel Thompson flies many different types of missions for the Reserve, it is the air evacuation missions that have made an impact on him above all others.

"The back of the airplane is set up like a trauma room," he said. "You're seeing, back there, the worst of it. There are doctors and nurses getting these folks stabilized and onto the airplane and we're trying to get them to the hospital in Germany."

Although Air Force medical evacuation teams and critical care air transport teams are the ones who handle the patients directly, the pilots are not invulnerable to what's going on in the rear of the plane.

"There's a lot of loss of limb," Colonel Thompson said. "You're seeing people with ventilators who need to be sedated. You're seeing a lot of small injuries like broken bones, but also disfigurements from explosive blasts and things like that."

"You see all of it," he added in a quiet refrain.

Through a year-long 729th Airlift Squadron activation in 2003-2004, a year and a half on individual orders in 2006-2007 and 2-3 weeks of Reserve duty a year, Colonel Thompson estimates he's evacuated 3,000 wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan. He never knows what happens to the wounded warriors after his part of the mission is done.

"You drop them off in Germany and you don't hear anything else," he said.

From a medical standpoint, Colonel Thompson said the military does a great job of taking care of injured servicemembers, but he says there is still more that can be done. This is the need he and Greenway were determined to fill.

The money raised
When Colonel Thompson and Greenway were first developing the ideas for fundraising, they thought they would organize a long distance bike ride with about 10 riders who could earn a total of $15,000.

"It blossomed from there," Colonel Thompson said.

In 2008, the first year of the ride, 23 cyclists completed the 430-mile "The Ride for Semper Fi" and raised a total of $53,000. In 2009, there were 35 riders, earning $100,000. This year, there will be 52 riders, 18 of whom have ridden the previous two years. They reached their 2010 goal of $177,500 well before the ride began and the money is still coming in.

"It's amazing how even in these tough economic times how giving people still are to the military," Colonel Thompson said.

The proceeds from the ride go to The Injured Marines Semper Fi Fund, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides immediate financial support for injured members of the U.S. armed forces and their families. Karen Guenther and a team of Marine wives established the fund in 2004 and it has since given more than 22,000 grants to more than 4,800 servicemembers totaling more than $43 million in financial assistance.

"The grants have funded everything from travel and temporary lodging for family members of hospitalized military personnel to specially adapted vehicles and specially adapted homes," Guenther said. "The Semper Fi Fund helps provide a fresh start and a solid foundation for injured military personnel as they transition back into their communities to allow these heroes and their families to have the best quality of life possible."

By working with an already established fund, Colonel Thompson and Greenway are able to reduce the administrative costs, helping them maximize the amount of aid reaching wounded servicemembers.

"We are forever grateful to the Ride for Semper Fi for helping us raise visibility for our critical mission and for reminding Americans that our young servicemembers who have been injured while in the service to our country need our love and our unwavering support throughout their recovery," Guenther said.

This July, Gen. James T. Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, recognized Colonel Thompson and Greenway's contributions by hosting them as guests of honor at a reception for Marine Corps donors at the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C.

Although he appreciates the recognition, it is the look Colonel Thompson sees on the faces of the patients he evacuates that keeps him going.

"You can see their shock and uncertainty and it makes you feel for them," he said. "They left here just fine and now they're coming home and they're faced with a whole new world of coping and trying to relearn how to get by in life."

"This is my own way of being able to help out beyond getting them off the battlefield," Colonel Thompson continued. "It's the next part: sustaining them and getting them back on their feet and getting them going in life again."

The ride
Each of this year's cyclists had a fundraising goal of $2,200.

"Many of them have gone way above and beyond. Some of them have raised $15,000," Colonel Thompson said.

The majority of The Ride for Semper Fi participants are civilians. Joining them this year will be retired Air Force Maj Gen Roger Radcliff and two recovering wounded Marines whom the group is sponsoring. This year, for the first time, Colonel Thompson's 16-year-old son will be joining the group.

"He's raised $3,000 all on his own," Colonel Thompson said.

There are four legs of the ride, with the longest day totaling 128 miles. The group will overnight in Courtside, Ariz., Brawley, Calif., and Julian, Calif. Colonel Thompson said the most difficult day will be the third, when the riders, already fatigued from the previous day of riding, will begin below sea level in the Imperial Valley and climb to more than 4,000 feet to their stopping point in Julian.

The ride will end the following day when the cyclists ride into Sea World. Colonel Thompson and Greenway will present the check from the proceeds of the ride to Karen Guenther and Wendy Lethin from The Injured Marines Semper Fi Fund. During the three o'clock Shamu show, Sea World staff will introduce the riders to the audience.

"Though the final amount raised is still a secret, there is no doubt that the Ride for Semper Fi will raise an incredible amount of funds to help us in our critical mission," said Guenther. "They have made a profound difference in the lives of our injured servicemembers. With every mile they have covered, for the hours of sweat and sore muscles they have given, we are forever grateful to the Ride for Semper Fi , and especially John and Paul for their time, effort and heart."

Colonel Thompson said the group has been preparing for the ride with 70-100 mile training rides every Saturday and the group members train on their own during the week with shorter rides.

During the ride, it will take an 18-person support staff to keep things running smoothly. The staff members drive three, 15-passenger vans, a 26-foot Ryder truck and four RVs. The riders generally take breaks every 30 miles and the support staff drives ahead to prepare the break sites with shade, food, and water. The support staff also helps make the riders' transition smooth at the overnight stops by checking the riders into the hotels, setting up bike racks and unloading luggage.

In the evenings, the support staff sets up presentations for the riders. Colonel Thompson said these presentations bring life to the fallen and recovering heroes for whom the group is riding.

The riders' expenses are covered by sponsorships, which ensures all of the donation money goes to injured servicemembers, Colonel Thompson said.

He and Greenway handle the administrational aspects of the ride themselves; something Colonel Thompson says takes him two to three hours every day. The behind-the-scenes tasks include finding insurance coverage for the ride, arranging the logistics of the overnight stops, coordinating the departure ceremony and the finale at Sea World, scheduling a police escort for the San Diego portion of the ride and planning additional fundraising events like golf tournaments and auctions. Another task is supporting the riders as they search for pledges.

"You've got to teach 50 people how to go out and ask for money," Colonel Thompson said. "It's not a natural thing. It's tough for people to do."

Colonel Thompson said he and Greenway plan to keep the ride going in the future. They have been studying successful charitable athletic events like the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure and are looking at "all kinds of different options" for upcoming rides.