Marco Illanes’ medal of honor is engraved into his skin, tattooed there by an Iraqi improvised explosive device.
    The scar tissue winds down the right side of his body like a map to hell — a place the Army specialist is well-acquainted, having survived being blown up in an alien land often described by American soldiers as, truly, hell on Earth.
    Illanes still travels a slow, painful road through the perdition known as physical rehabilitation — a street of hardship that coils and uncoils back upon itself like a serpent, but which now slithers upward with a sense of hope and purpose rather than spiraling downhill.
    And it’s a path he travels not by foot or gurney or crutch, but by bicycle wheel.
    Illanes is one of around 20 injured soldiers rehabilitating through a program called Operation Spin Cycle, which was started by Leona O’Berry, vice president of a group of avid Fayetteville cyclists known as the Cross Creek Cycling Club. With the help of Hawley’s Bicycle World, Operation Spin Cycle allows rehabilitating soldiers such as Illanes to recuperate by “spinning” — riding stationary bikes under the watchful eye of an instructor — in a room provided by Hawleys.
    It’s a program that not only gives wounded soldiers back their health, but their hope.{mosimage}
    “I’ve been doing this for a month and it helps a lot because I can’t run anymore, so it helps me stay in shape,” said Illanes, who was injured by an IED about a year ago and spent four months in the hospital, enduring more than 20 surgeries. “Plus, it helps me more with my legs. It also helps my attitude because everyone, from the instructor to the regular class, is motivated. I will probably do this for the rest of my life.”
Illanes’ attitude is typical of the room full of injured vets who spin for an hour in the back of Hawley’s Bicycle World. And while their collective attitude about the spinning class is 100 percent positive, the range of their injuries is diverse.
    “The soldiers have various wounds, ranging from blindness, amputations, and wounds that are not visible to the naked eye, such as traumatic brain injuries,” said O’Berry, who traveled through a minefield of her own — albeit this one made of red tape rather than cordite and shrapnel — to get approval for the spinning program from the Surgeon General and the military.
    Ironically, in order to get the powers that be to see the light and agree to this powerful program, O’Berry enlisted the aid of a blind man.
    Ivan Castro lost his sight in Iraq, but found redemption on the seat of a stationary bicycle. To get back in shape,  Castro began spinning as part of his rehabilitation program, thinking that was the only activity he could safely participate in.
    A member of the Cross Creek Cycling Club, who also happened to be Castro’s spinning instructor, regaled the club with tales of how hard the sightless soldier trained.
    “So, the idea was born that if he liked the spin bikes so much, maybe he’d like to come out and ride on the road with us,” said O’Berry. “We have a guy in our club, Bob Meyer, who has a tandem bike and we asked Ivan if he would like to come out and try it and he loved it. He had such a good time that it inspired me to say if he can benefit from this so much, I felt like other people could. When Ivan heard us tossing this idea around, he said he wanted to work with us on this project.”
    O’Berry and Castro came up with the name Operation Spin Cycle — spin for the spin room, and cycle because the ultimate plan is to get all these wounded vets on the road ... and on the road to recovery.
After writing all the letters required to cut through the  fortress of rules and regulations constructed by the federal government, O’Berry and Castro went to Womack Army Hospital to brief the rehabilitation folks there on the program and get permission to “cycle” their patients through Operation Spin Cycle. O’Berry also went to the Warrior Transition Battalion and briefed the commander, telling him his soldiers might find this an alternative to their PT program because some of them can’t run anymore.
    After jumping all the paperwork and official hurdles inherent in the military, Operation Spin Cycle was approved and the soldiers started showing up in December, now spinning every Wednesday and Friday.
Five of the wounded soldiers became so confident in the spinning class and recovered so well from their wounds, that they began riding on the road with Cross Creek Cycling Club and other bicycle clubs. The bicycles have been donated from various sources, including bicycle manufacturer Giant.
    After overcoming their fear of the open road, the cadre of rehabilitating riders faces yet another challenge — joining in on a bicycle ride/fundraiser for wounded soldiers called The Road 2 Recovery. The R2R started on May 20 in Washington, D.C., and ends on May 25 in Charlotte at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Two of Operation Spin Cycles’ soldier will attempt the entire ride, while O’Berry and the other two riders in the group, along with cyclists from Fort Bragg and Fayetteville will join the ride in Asheboro for the last 60 miles to the speedway and a final victory lap around the track prior to the start of the Coca-Cola 600.
    {mosimage}Dave Ogelsang and Mark Molina have committed themselves to the D.C. to Charlotte journey — a six-day ride of 460 miles.
    For Molina, who tore ligaments in his knee in June 2007, the R2R has special meaning; not only is Molina proving he is not physically dependent on others, but he’s also motivated by the memory of a relative who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq.
    “This is my way of honoring my cousin, Specialist Jason Morales of the First Infantry, who was killed in battle,” said Molina. “I’m just grateful I get to do this R2R Ride for all the people that have been wounded over there, as well as my cousin.”
    Also along for the ride will be Ogelsang, who tore up his shoulder in a Humvee rollover in Kuwait and who has been spinning six days a week in preparation for the R2R.
    Ogelsang, a sergeant in the Army, says the spinning program is quite an improvement from the “bad old days” of rehabilitation.
    “I’m glad the program is here,” said Ogelsang. “I’ve spoken with other people, and considering the way soldiers were handled back in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, now it’s a totally changed program; command is very supportive of making sure the soldiers recover and have a normal life. Without that, I wouldn’t be here and they wouldn’t be here.”
    Of course, none of this would have been possible without the contributions made by Hawley’s Bicycle World, which provides the space, the stationary bikes, and has repaired and tuned up — free of charge — the bicycles donated to the wounded vets.
    “We’re just thrilled we can contribute to the soldiers in even this small way,” said Sandy Hawley, co-owner of the bicycle shop. “We’re not military people by any means, but this is our way of giving back to Fayetteville and the military here that have been so kind to us. It’s the least we can do.”
    If you would like to aid these injured soldiers across the nation, you can visit the R2R Web site, www.road2recovery.us.com, and make a donation.
    It’s the least we can do for the Americans who have given us their most.
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