Riverhead’s own Sebastian “Sam” Cila has been selected as one of 14 seriously wounded Iraq or Afghanistan war veterans to bike alongside former President George W. Bush in a three-day, 100 kilometer ride through the mountains of Big Bend National Park in Texas.
The ride will start on Monday and is scheduled to be completed Wednesday.
“I have met members of his staff,” Sgt. Cila said of the former president. “I had an opportunity to have lunch with Donald Rumsfeld and Condeleeza Rice once, and I went to dinner with Dick Cheney. So for me, having served during his administration and having met most of his staff, to finally get to meet the president is a great honor.”
Sgt. Cila was wounded while serving just outside the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad on July 4, 2005, when an improvised explosive device containing fertilizer, metal and explosives went off on the roadside where he was walking.
Sgt. Cila recalls having a “big hole” in his chest and bleeding badly.
He subsequently had more than 40 surgeries over four years, but ultimately had to have his left hand amputated.
During his recovery period, a friend convinced him to run a 5K race. He did, and then eventually entered more races. Soon he was competing in triathlons and iron man competitions across the region.
He now is a spokesman for Operation Rebound and the Challenged Athlete Foundation. Operation Rebound helps injured military personnel and emergency service responders, such as police, while the Challenged Athlete Foundation helps people with disabilities to maintain an active lifestyle.
So how did he get hooked up with the former President?
“A buddy of mine who’s also doing the ride had heard about it and asked me if I wanted to get on board,” Sgt. Cila said. “I jumped at the opportunity. Next thing you know, it snowballed to the point where I am now.”
The buddy, Sergeant Major Chris Self of Clarksville, Tenn., suffered gunshot wounds to both legs during a combat mission in Iraq in December 2005, and eventually had his paralyzed right leg amputated.
Like Sgt. Cila, Mr. Self remains athletic despite his injuries.
Sgt. Major Self, Sgt. Cila and another wounded veteran, Sgt. Andy Hatcher, all compete together regularly in events representing Operation Rebound.
“All of us are pretty competitive cyclist and endurance athletes and we race together quite a bit,” Sgt. Cila said.
Sgt. Hatcher, a Marine, had his right foot amputated as a result of injuries suffered on Thanksgiving Day, 2004, when an improvised explosive device struck his vehicle in Iraq. Five months after the amputation, Sgt. Hatcher was part of a group of injured soldiers who rode bicycles from Washington D.C. to New York City.
The event is not considered a race in which there’s a starting line and finish line, Sgt. Cila said, “but whenever me and my buddies are on a bike, shoulder to shoulder, eventually, it turns into a race.”
But he said he’s not too concerned about showing up the president this weekend.
“From what I understand, it’s quite the other way around. He’s pretty fit and he’s not afraid to pick up the pace,” Sgt. Cila said.
The event is part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center Social Enterprise Initiative, and attempts to “herald the significant contributions of organizations that support these heroes and their families ,” a release from the center states.
“I’ll be riding across the deserts of Texas with wounded warriors to show the unbelievable character of our men and women in uniform,” President Bush said in a press release about the event. “It’s a 100-kilometer ride in the desert, and it’s not a leisurely ride. It’s a ride to herald people who were dealt a severe blow and said, ‘I’m not going to let it tear me down.’”