Brothers tap inner 'Forrest Gump' in 3,000-mile trek for vets
San Antonio Express-News
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — For the past three weeks and 1,000 miles, Navy veteran Michael Schwartz and his brother, Steve, have spent their waking hours pedaling through scorching stretches of California and Arizona desert that reached temperatures of up to 112 degrees, over New Mexico mountains and against unrelenting West Texas wind.
On Sunday, as they made a pit stop at San Antonio's Audie Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital with a stack of student “thank you” letters in hand, they were reminded again why they volunteered to temporarily disrupt their normal routines for that of a bicycling gypsy.
“Many (veterans) never have been approached by someone who just wants to say 'thank you,'” said Steve Schwartz, recalling a recent stop at another veterans hospital in which his brother and the recipient of a letter broke down in tears together. “It's heartwarming and amazing.”
Michael Schwartz, 55, came up with the idea for a 3,000-mile charity ride from San Diego to Jacksonville, Fla., while praying one day as he cycled through the Atlanta area where he lives. The goal, he decided, would be to raise $50,000 before the trip is over.
Half of the money will go to the Wounded Warrior Project, which aids disabled veterans. The other half, after travel expenses, will go anonymously to veterans in need for the brothers have met along the way — such as a new acquaintance in Phoenix whose only vehicle is falling apart.
So far, his nonprofit, called Freedom's Heart, has raised about $9,000. The duo hopes awareness of their effort will spread now that they are reaching more metropolitan areas. Their next stops include Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta.
“We have a long way to go in the next 30 days,” both in mileage and fundraising, Michael Schwartz conceded. “When you spend four days in a row cycling through desert, you're not raising a lot of money.”
But there have been plenty of uplifting moments, he said, recalling times when they have returned to their decal-covered support truck — driven by Michael Schwartz's father-in-law and donated by his employer, a car dealership — to find cash underneath the windshield wiper or tucked in the door handle.
Supporters also have been donating through the group's website, www.cyclingforwarriors.org, which has been receiving about 1,000 visits per day.
Michael Schwartz spent 22 years in the Navy before retiring in 1998 as a senior chief petty officer. He didn't pick up bicycling until three years ago, after learning he was diabetic. The hobby helped him lose 55 pounds and reverse the disease, he said.
It took him about a year of “planning, strategizing, sweating and worrying” before he took a leave of absence from his job and hit the road for San Diego. His brother flew in from his home in Michigan, agreeing to join the cause because, as he explains it, the two-month trek awakened his inner “Forrest Gump.”
Before setting out, Michael Schwartz collected about 100 letters to veterans penned by eighth graders at Woodland Middle School in Euharlee, Ga. One recipient said it was the first thank you he's received since leaving the service more than four decades ago. Another said he intends to put his letter by his nightstand and read it every night, the brothers recalled.
“I wanted to do something more than just ride my bike,” Michael Schwartz said before stepping inside the San Antonio veterans facility. “I believe this is the best way to communicate our gratitude to the veterans.”