Both Andrew Pogany and Nic Gray went to Iraq to serve their country -- and both found themselves in a heap of trouble when they returned.
Pogany suffered a mental breakdown; Gray was arrested for acts he committed during a black out.
But now, the two soldiers turned advocates have joined forces -- as well as bike pedals. In order to raise money and awareness of other soldiers facing similar problems, they're taking part in Ride 2 Recovery (R2R) cycling challenges, fund-raising rides around the country that raise money for military and VA cycling programs.
Both of them understand the need for such programs from personal experience.
Pogany, a Fort Carson soldier, shipped out for Iraq in 2003 as part of a Special Forces team. After just a few days in the war zone, he suffered a mental breakdown and when his superiors wouldn't offer him help, he asked to be sent home. Later, doctors determined his breakdown had been caused by Lariam, a controversial anti-malaria drug given at the time to soldiers in Iraq. But by that point, the damage had already been done: The Army had charged Pogany with cowardice, a military crime that hadn't been used to convict a soldier since 1968 -- and one that was punishable by death.
Three years later, Gray was deployed to Iraq, and was there for the height of the no-holds-barred Surge campaign. Still, he made it home in one piece -- or so he thought. He got out of the Army, moved to Colorado Springs and launched a successful business. But then, one October night in 2009, something snapped in his mind and he blacked out. When he came to, he was sitting in county jail and charged with felony trespassing and other crimes for kicking down the door of his neighbor's house as if he were back in Iraq and hunting insurgents. While he couldn't remember committing the crimes, he was looking at up to five years in prison.
These days, however, circumstances have changed drastically for both veterans. Pogany stood up against the Army and beat the cowardice charge. Since then, he's become a tireless soldier's advocate and is currently the director of military outreach and education for Give an Hour, a nonprofit that provides free mental health services to military personnel and their families affected by the current conflicts.
Gray, meanwhile, was one of the first people chosen to participate in the El Paso County Veterans Court, a new legal program designed to help traumatized veterans trapped in the criminal justice system. The court assigned Gray treatment instead of prison time, and lately he's been spreading the word about veterans courts, which are popping up around the country.
Next week, however, they have something else on their respective schedules. Pogany and Gray, both sponsored by Give an Hour, head south for R2R's 350-mile "Don't Mess with Texas Challenge," from April 6 to 11.
"The rides focus on injured war veterans, and since Give an Hour focuses on soldiers with invisible injuries, this raises recognition that these invisible injuries can have just as much impact as that of physical injuries," says Pogany. The money raised doesn't hurt, either: It costs $1,100 in donations to sponsor a R2R rider.
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While Pogany and Gray are the only two Give an Hour riders participating in the Texas race, Pogany hopes to get fifty Give an Hour reps to ride in the mid-Atlantic Memorial Challenge from May 31 to June 5 and the Rocky Mountain Challenge form June 31 to August 5.
To do that, he needs to raise $55,000 in donations, as well as extra to cover riders' travel expenses. "We need money," he says bluntly. Those interested in sponsoring a rider can shoot Pogany an e-mail, call him at 202-286-8253, or donate online at www.giveanhour.org (designation: Ride2Recovery). Wounded warriors interesting in riding for Give an Hour are encouraged to contact Pogany, too.
In the meantime, Pogany and Gray still have to make it over 350 miles of hot Texas asphalt -- though Pogany, for one, isn't too worried. After all he and Gray have been through, a few days of cycling should be nothing.