Army veteran Tom von Kaenel said the hardest part of his 7,000-mile bike ride around the country is maintaining his emotions while dedicating the ride to fallen veterans.
A dedication ceremony was held in the USC Aiken Activities Center on Tuesday, commemorating veterans who have died in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Kaenel, 6,797 military personnel have died. Of those, 96 were from South Carolina and three were from Aiken.
A gathering of students, faculty and veterans listened as von Kaenel told them his ride and dedication ceremony are significant because a U.S. Air Force major saved his life in battle.
“I shattered my pelvis and dislocated my hip and a U.S. Air Force major rescued me,” von Kaenel said. “They arranged for me to get a flight to Landsthul Military Hospital where I spent 18 days in the trauma ward.”
He added the treatment he received was life saving; however, many people did not make it through, which is why the bike ride is part of his commitment.
He incorporated USCA students and faculty and other veterans into the program. The assorted group simultaneously read 96 name cards, each representing a former state veteran who died in Iraq or Afghanistan.
While the ceremony included a fair-sized gathering of students, many had no idea that it was going to happen and were pleasantly surprised by the dedication.
USCA student Michael Hill was one of many in attendance who applauded von Kaenel for the ceremony and for his bike ride.
“It definitely caught me off guard, but it's pretty cool what he's doing,” Hill said. “You can tell he's really sincere about what he's doing, and I think it's a great tribute.”
Student Austin Guidry added, “It was a very humbling experience to see just how many people lay their lives on the line for us each day. It's always a good reminder to have someone like that come and speak about it.”
USCA Safety Manager Len Engel is a disabled veteran and attended the event to show his support for von Kaenel's mission.
“To see that someone really cares really warms my heart,” he said. “It's a great initiative, and he really has my support in what he's doing.”
After leaving Aiken, von Kaenel headed across the river to Augusta. From there, he will continue his journey which will lead him as far south as Key West, Fla., and all the way up to Juno, Alaska.
The trip is approximately 7,000 miles and is expected to take about 120 days. He is expecting to reach Juno on July 4.
Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard. He joined the paper in June. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.