Chad Brownell, an active guard reserve for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, has spent 20 years serving his country.

But the physical and mental strains he suffered along the way were making it difficult for him to integrate back into society.

That is, until some friends introduced him to the world of Project Hero.

Project Hero is a national nonprofit that helps veterans heal both physically and mentally through cycling.

And last Friday, the organization made a stop at the Grand Geneva in Lake Geneva.

Challenge rides

According to Peter Bylsma, who works in public relations for Project Hero, the organization raises money through cycling events known as honor rides.

The money from these honor rides then goes to the challenge rides, which are all-expense-paid cycling trips for veterans.

The group that came to the Grand Geneva was part of the 500 mile United Health Care Great Lakes Challenge Bike Ride.

This ride partnered Project Hero with the United Health Care organization.

Between Aug. 7 and Aug. 14, the group traveled from Minneapolis to Chicago.

And according to Bylsma, these 500 miles are filled with much more than the scenery.

The exercise associated with cycling helps improve the veterans’ physical and mental health, Bylsma said, even helping them not have to take as many medications.

The mentality behind cycling also plays a role in the health of the veterans.

“Cycling is very goal-oriented,” Bylsma said. “Every time you achieve a goal, you feel better about yourself.”

And the veterans aren’t achieving these goals alone.

Bylsma said that the cyclists ride side by side, allowing them to help each other out.

“They’re so mission-oriented, and there’s such a great community of support, that if they slow down, they’ll be pushed without any guilt,” he said. “We’re bringing you along. We don’t leave anyone behind, kind of a thing. If you’re in the pack, they’ll help you finish.”

Of course, riders can still chose to ride in the truck if they need a break, Bylsma added, saying there’s “no shame” in that.

Many of the veterans have health problems due to their time in service and need the break every now and then.

Project Hero will also make specially designed bikes for veterans who can’t ride a traditional bike.

Bylsma said that the organization has even made an upright bike for a veteran who is also a quad amputee.

But regardless of the type of trauma they may have received while serving, Bylsma said that the veterans are often able to share their experiences with their fellow cyclists.

“They relate to one another in ways they can’t relate to us,” he said. “We (non-veterans) haven’t been in the battles. We haven’t suffered the way they have.”

The combination of all these factors is, for Bylsma, what makes the program work.

“Cycling is sort of the glue that puts it all together,” he said. “Nothing really works as well as the combination of cycling and community.”

Two wheel success story

Thom Smith, who runs the Madison branch of Project Hero, said that his wife, Sherri got him involved with the organization.

He said that along with the physical exercise cycling gives them, which he jokes helps them keep up with their kids, he has also seen how cycling has helped them and their fellow vets grow.

Sherri, a combat vet, is able to use the time as an outlet to talk about her time serving, Thom said.

The camaraderie and friendships that are formed are what makes the experience worthwhile, he continued.

And for Thom, none of that would be possible without the cycling.

“I can contribute success directly to these two wheels,” he said, gesturing toward his bike.

Riding as one

Brownell said that it was Thom and Sherri who reached out to him to get him involved with Project Hero.

He said he hadn’t done much biking before this, but the physical limitations he received from serving made cycling an easy way to stay in shape.

And Brownell soon found his niche in the group as the cyclists began tackling the hilly back roads of Wisconsin.

He began pushing low riders, cyclists who pedal with their arms due to amputations, up the hills.

Brownell said he enjoys being there for his friends rather than trying to ride fast.

“You’re riding as one,” he said. “It’s all about everyone getting to the end point together.”

One example of this sticks out in his mind.

He said that during one hill, a fellow rider came up behind him and put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“He said ‘hey, I got you,’” Brownell reminisced.

Jen Gragg graduated from Lawrence University with a degree in English and from the University of Wisconsin Madison with a degree in Journalism. She covers county government, crime, the village of Williams Bay and the town of Lyons.