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Kiersten Downs, 33, finishing Ph.D in applied anthropology, University of South Florida:

When I joined the Air Force when I was 18, before I left for basic training, my grandfather a veteran of WWII gave me this bracelet and he looked down at me and said, “Kiersten, nobody wins in war.”

I went through my active duty years loading bombs on a B-1 Lancer, deploying primarily to island nations where I loaded the bombs and I just did my job like everybody told me. ‘Kiersten just do your job.’ ‘Alright.’ And then I went to college and I continued to stay in the Air National Guard and I deployed to Iraq. Suddenly, what I saw, when I was working in hospitalsw as what happens whenyou are on the other side of the bomb.

I was very confused. … And I was angry when I got out and I went home. So I did what any sane person would do. I planned a 3800 mile bicycling trip across the country. It started in California. My goal was to ride through 10 different states until I got to Washington DC. And along the way, even though this bike ride started as a very solitary journey, which I wanted – I just wanted to be alone, I didn’t want to be with anybody – something happened. The bike ride morphed very quickly, after planning it to be by myself for two years, into a journey of an entire community.

When I was in California, I was a week into my ride. I trained in Florida and suddenly I was hitting these big mountain ranges. I was faced with a hair pin very narrow curvy mountain road. Smack. I hit a pothole. Head over tire, landed in the middle of the road and I heard what sounded like a big truck coming. Grabbed my bike and I rolled into the dirt. My tire was still spinning. I could hear it Click, click, click, click, click. Huge pain rushing down my leg and my first thought was ‘Oh shit. I am only on the first week of this ride!’ I have to finish, I just raised 50 grand and people are expecting me to finish.

So I put my bike on my shoulder and I huffed it, on my two feet six miles until there was a SAG vehicle waiting for me. I had to recover for a couple of days after that and for the rest of the three or four states I went through I was pretty much alone. It was pretty rural…. I went through the mountains of Colorado and then in Pueblo there was a group waiting there for me. And this was a group of student veterans. They had read through social media that I’d had some pretty low points and I didn’t know if I was going to finish this ride. So they organized and they came out and they met me. And we completed a 67 mile ride that day. Some of them had never even ridden a bike before. They got on and they did it and they even ran a couple of miles at the end because they couldn’t ride anymore. But they finished it. For me. They did that to push me forward. And I needed that so much at that point.

I completed the ride. And I am not sure if that group knows that they were a primary reason why I was able to keep going. I want to tell you this today so you understand. You might not know what it means when you take the initiative to go out and help somebody to push them forward, but it could mean them completing that ride. And social connection is what moves us forward in life.

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