Jeremy Staat and Wesley Barrientos admitted they weren’t sure what awaited them when the two made a mid-March overnight stop in Payson during their Wall-to-Wall journey to raise awareness of military veterans’ issues.
What occurred in the 100-day ride is the stuff memories are made of — some good, others not so good.
Barrientos, who lost both legs while serving a tour of duty in Iraq, was involved in two wrecks after leaving Payson. On the second crash, he suffered a dislocated shoulder, which rendered riding his specially designed hand- cranked bike impossible. He also suffered road rash and head injuries.
After Barrientos dropped out, Staat — a former Arizona State University football star who later played professionally for the Pittsburgh Steelers — continued on, but faced some unexpected adversity.
Staat, equipped with a CB radio earpiece to communicate with his crew, often picked up communications between big rig truckers.
What he heard was disturbing.
Some truckers were highly critical of Staat and his entourage traveling on roadway shoulders, scolding them to move out of the way.
“Most of the highways we were on were memorial highways or Purple Heart trails and here we are getting yelled at… we were riding for veterans,” Staat told the media on Memorial Day at the Vietnam War Memorial destination in Washington, D.C.
While those clashes with truckers were distasteful, there were many other memories along the way that the two cherish.
In Payson, flag waving supporters lined the south side of Highway 260 near the American Legion Post to greet Staat and Barrientos who stayed the night at a Payson hotel.
Inside the Post, American Legion members cheered and applauded the pair before the two settled down to a late afternoon meal.
“I hope you have a lot of food, he eats a lot,” one of the entourage members said about Staat who played professionally at 6-foot, 6-inches and 300 pounds.
After leaving Payson, Staat and Barrientos made more than 70 stops at military bases, hospitals, memorials, posts and schools to talk about the mounting issues our military men and women face, including the rapidly growing suicide rate of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 4,000-mile ride, which began Feb. 18 at the Wall of Valor in Bakersfield, Calif., eventually culminated at the Vietnam Memorial Wall where Staat and Barrientos were enthusiastically greeted.
At the wall, the two placed mementos given to them during the journey with instructions to lay them at the base of the Memorial.
Among them was a 173rd Airborne uniform patch given to the two by a Vietnam veteran and several American flags.
Before leaving their destination, Staat told onlookers that the journey was not about him or Barrientos, but rather about veterans. “Our veterans have given us everything we have today and what a way to honor them to say thanks to them for their sacrifices and the humiliations they had to endure.”
Barrientos served in the 101st Airborne Division as an infantryman and is a three-time Purple Heart recipient who lost his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007.
He met Staat while volunteering at the Wall of Valor project.
In 2005, Staat — after qualifying for an NFL pension — put his country before the gridiron, joining the U.S. Marines.
He eventually was trained as a machine gunner and in 2007 spent a tour of duty in the Iraq war zone.
In 2009, he was honorably discharged, leaving with a newfound respect for the men and women of the armed forces.
“The veterans, they are the true heroes of our country.”