Iraq veteran reawakens during her cross-country cycling quest
Sarah Lee, an Iraq War veteran and member of American Legion Post 88 in Nashville, Tenn., holds the Kona Sutra bicycle she rode across the United States. Photo by Schelly Stone

Iraq veteran reawakens during her cross-country cycling quest

Sarah Lee awoke from a particularly dark night for her. The pain pills she’d laid out on her kitchen table were still there. But her thoughts of suicide had been replaced by a vision.

Lee, who had not ridden a bike since high school, decided it was time to pursue something she’d been thinking about recently: bicycling across the United States. It would help her raise awareness about veteran suicide, and be a way to vanquish the demons of post-traumatic stress disorder she’d fought since deploying to Iraq with the 216th Combat Engineers of the Ohio Army National Guard in 2004.

Lee started by purchasing a bicycle. After three visits to a local bike shop in Nashville, Tenn., she bought one. That led to her first pedal, which eventually led to her cross-country journey of thousands of miles, discovery of The American Legion, and a return to the cheerful, energetic personality that had been obscured by PTSD.

Isolation After leaving the Army, Lee started working as a photographer and relocated from Ohio to Nashville. The transition was challenging. “I missed the military, the camaraderie mainly,” she says. “It’s hard to find that in the civilian sector. As soon as you meet another veteran, you know that you were both trained to take a bullet for each other. You can start in a place that it might take a civilian friendship years to get to.”

Still, Lee wrestled with guilt about losing friends in the war. She lacked motivation to embrace healthy habits. She battled chronic neck pain. Soon she was in a downward spiral. She gained 100 pounds and faced the prospect of a stroke or heart attack by 30.

Lee rebounded. She started working out five days a week. She cut out carbs and sugar, and drank a lot of water. 

“After I lost that weight, I was in a good place,” she says, adding that she helped others become more fit, too. “I felt like I was really giving back again. Vets are very hard on themselves. A lot of us gain weight when we get out. When I took control, I felt a lot better.”

That feeling lasted until a routine medical exam revealed a cyst on one of her ovaries. Lee slid back toward depression. 

“I really got into a dark place right up until my surgery, and I didn’t go anywhere anymore,” she says. “I was already isolating myself quite a bit. If I didn’t go to a workout or a photo shoot, I didn’t leave the house.”

The cyst was benign, but the damage to her psyche was done. “I had it removed, and I’m supposed to feel like a new lease on life, and it wasn’t there. To be completely honest, I was almost hoping something might go wrong and that I could be done. I hate saying that stuff because I know people care.”

After surgery on Thanksgiving Day in 2016, Lee hit rock bottom. She further distanced herself from loved ones. Her mind filled with thoughts of those she lost. Then, the following spring, one night changed everything. 

‘Letters to no one’ Samuel Bowen was one of the close friends Lee lost in Iraq. “He went out on a mission I feel I was supposed to have been on,” she says. “He was killed, and several people were injured. He took the impact of the RPG. Many have said to me, ‘It’s not your fault.’ Maybe I would have noticed something or it could have gone differently.”

The more Lee thought about those who died, the darkness deepened. “The further down you get, you just lose sight of everything that’s real,” she says. “You lose sight of everyone who loves you, the things that are good about you, the things you have done and will do ... you’re focusing on the ending, the final chapter. I’d do a lot of writing for no reason, just letters to no one. I really was not honoring the sacrifices made by my friends.”

Lee shunned medicine, even ibuprofen, for pain. Post-surgery, she didn’t take anything she’d been given for relief.

In her darkest hour, she counted the pills and lined them up, desperate to end her misery. But she passed out from drinking instead. She woke up and realized she would not survive another night like that.

“I don’t know why I didn’t (take my life),” she says, recognizing that she had lost sight of her many reasons to live. “People love me. I’m not done. Those things kind of disappear sometimes, and it’s like this tunnel vision with no light. When I woke up, I knew I had to follow through with my cycling journey.”

Lee immediately began planning and training for A Vicious Cycle, her five-month, 4,010-mile bicycle trip from coastal Virginia to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

‘I had to do it for myself’ After her long hiatus from cycling, Lee found it easy to get back on the bike. “It felt so amazing. Honestly, I got a little tear in my eye on that first ride because I just knew right then that I could totally do this.”

Her Kona Sutra bicycle was a perfect fit. “Some people might laugh at this, and that’s totally fine because it is kind of goofy, but I’m comparing it to the bond you had with your M16. We view it like an extension of our arm. You take care of it, it takes care of you, you keep it crazy clean. I kind of missed having that bond with something.”

Lee grew up playing sports, including softball, enjoying the friendships and fellowship she found there. That led her to join the Guard, where she thrived as a leader and a teammate.

On her bicycle trip, though, Lee was largely on her own, pedaling through the Appalachians, the Ozarks, the Plains, the Rockies, the desert, the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevadas. 

“I had to do it for myself,” she says, recalling how she raised money by making and selling hundreds of paracord bracelets. “I had to wake myself back up.”

Even so, she never felt alone while on the road. “It was a way to honor friends we lost during my deployment,” she says. “I continue to lose them to suicide. I’ve lost three close friends now. I tried to honor them on the trip as much as I could. And you meet so many people along the way that you don’t feel alone, really, except during the cycling portion. That’s the best part, when you’re away from everybody and in a totally different world.”

Before the journey, Lee told her parents, Brian and Betsy Kniffin, what she hoped to accomplish. She spread out all her gear, maps and supplies on the floor. “I remember when you were a little girl, and you were sitting the same way with your toys scattered in front of you,” Betsy told Lee.

The Kniffins kept close tabs on her during her travels. “It wouldn’t have been our first choice to have our daughter do such an extensive trek,” Betsy adds. “But we understood. Her goal was healing, and she wanted to bring awareness to issues like PTSD and the veteran suicide rate. We supported her in doing that.”

Every day, they prayed. They followed her blog. Occasionally they would call or text. The Kniffins, who live in Ohio, surprised her by showing up on Lee’s route in Sonora, Ky., on her birthday. 

“I turned the corner in this little town, and there they are, just leaning out from these pillars, waving,” Lee says. “I knew for sure I was doing the right thing when my parents were there, totally rooting me on.”

New beginnings Lee’s bicycle trip began May 4, 2017, in Yorktown, Va., against the jet stream. Even then, she knew where she wanted to end up. 

“I really wanted to finish by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge,” she says. “I thought that would be symbolic – crossing bridges, new beginnings.”  

Initially, Lee didn’t feel she was in good enough shape. That improved, as did her road savvy. She got better at detecting noises and staying alert for vehicles, potholes and creatures. 

“If you’re going down a hill, a chipmunk could end you,” she says. “But I felt right at home with the situational intensity. I felt normal again, which is bittersweet. Does it take something like this?” 

Soon, local American Legion members heard about Lee’s ride and came out to support her. Dean Tuttle, adjutant for the Department of Tennessee, connected Lee to other veterans along her route and promoted her ride on social media. 

“It’s just an inspiration to see a fine young lady like Sarah helping our veterans, and making them aware of the dangers and of the depression that can happen when you come back from the battlefield,” he says.

Lee was grateful for encouragement from the American Legion Family. 

“They made a huge impact,” she says. “Cycling across America is equal parts physical and mental. Just knowing people were watching me and believing in me, so much so that they were sharing my words statewide, nationwide – there was no way I was ever giving up, knowing I had those people behind me.”

Tuttle sees Lee’s generation as essential to keeping the Legion strong. 

“This is what we have to look forward to: young veterans, like Sarah, who are willing to put their lives on the line to show that veterans can do other things than tell war stories,” he says. “Their stories also promote trying to battle depression and things that have happened on the battlefield. We never see their hidden injuries, but we’ve got to take care of them.”

Sudden stop In Pueblo, Colo., Lee met a group of post-9/11 veterans who were volunteering with Team Rubicon to clean up debris from a string of fires, landslides and flooding. That evening they bonded, and they wished her luck as she prepared to cross the Rocky Mountains. On Aug. 20, Lee started her morning with a liter of water, oatmeal and a fresh surge of confidence. 

On her first incline, however, Lee was run off the road by a pickup truck hauling a trailer. She maneuvered off the road to avoid being struck, but her tires got stuck in the sand, flipping her onto the right lane of the highway.

“Thankfully, he didn’t slow down or stop, because I might have hit the trailer,” she says. “There was a car tailgating him, and they didn’t see me. I threw my arm up real quick, and they swerved around me. 

“The tire screech ... I’ll never forget that sound. It was right behind my head.”

A half-mile away, Team Rubicon members heard the commotion and paused their work. Another truck driver brought Lee back to the group, which had a paramedic check her out. She’d torn a knee ligament and would need recovery time. 

A Vicious Cycle was put on hold.

Healing and bonding Lee returned to Nashville to heal. As she recuperated, she found a new home and a new family: American Legion Post 88 in Nashville. She met with the commander, Vietnam War Navy veteran Len Chappell, and left with a newfound appreciation for the organization.

“I was a stranger to them, and they really felt what I was feeling,” she says. “There was an instant bond.”

Chappell didn’t hesitate to welcome Lee when she arrived at Post 88. 

“It’s called veteran helping veteran,” he says. “That’s what The American Legion is all about: to support the young vet, the old vet, and where we need to go in the future.”

After Lee concluded her bicycle trip, Post 88 was ready to get behind her next project. She’s working on launching a nonprofit organization called Waypoint Vets that would sponsor outdoor activities for veterans, such as hiking, fishing and biking trips. 

“Activities ultimately help The American Legion because they see what you’re doing,” Chappell says. “This new adventure will contribute to creating better awareness of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re fighting so hard for those things on a daily basis. It’s important we have someone out there, a young vet helping to contribute to the whole organization.”

Post 88 has provided financial support and more for Lee and her message. She officially joined the post as a member while recovering from her cycling accident. 

Meanwhile, Lee’s healing took time. By the time she could resume physical activities, winter had come to Colorado. She had to wait until June 2 to continue her journey from Pueblo, where she had been run off the road.

Dozens of cyclists, veterans and others gathered to surprise Lee with a send-off. 

“I didn’t know if I could do it, but I was going to give it all I could,” she says. “Everyone was waiting at the top (of the incline), cheering. For a first day back, I felt so empowered. I felt like maybe I was ready for the Rockies.”

Lee pushed through the mountains and into the desert, taking a detour to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. It was more than a tourist attraction for her, as Eric Ward, a post-9/11 veteran friend of Lee’s, had never seen the Grand Canyon either. He died by suicide. She took a commemorative rock she had brought along and climbed to one of the area’s highest points.

“I got a running start and chucked that rock as hard and as far as I could into the Grand Canyon,” she says. “Then I sat there and thought about everyone who’s given their life for this country or taken their life because of wounds no one else sees. I felt connected to them, and I wanted to honor their memories.”

A golden ending Unbeknownst to Lee as she neared her Golden Gate goal on Sept. 3, 2018, a group of American Legion Riders planned to welcome her to San Francisco. 

“This is something we definitely wanted to support, even without really knowing anything about what Sarah had gone through herself,” says Cory Waddingham, past president of American Legion Riders Chapter 82 in California. “The determination she’s shown over the past several years to complete this mission is incredible. We wanted to come out and meet her.”

Starting at North Vista Point, the Legion Riders escorted Lee across the Golden Gate Bridge, through the streets of San Francisco and to the ocean. There, she dipped her tires in the waters of the Pacific, marking the end of her ride. The Riders then carried her bike from the water, through the beach, back to solid ground.

“It was our honor to carry that burden for you for a little while,” Cory told Lee.  

She’s grateful to the Riders for that moment.

“It was breathtaking that so many people showed up to support me on last-minute notice,” Lee says. “When I arrived at the north end of the bridge, there was a crowd. It was just hug after hug after hug, with heartfelt and important conversations. They made me feel like instant family. They made it easy for me to complete my mission. I was sad it was coming to an end, but they made it feel like a new beginning.”

That connection has only gotten stronger. 

“I’m so thankful to The American Legion and the Legion Riders for stepping up at the last second to really let me know, ‘You’re not alone, you never were, and you never will be. We’ve been here for a long time, and we’ll be here for a long time. You always have us to fall back on. Just keep going. We’re here to push you, pull you, whatever.’”

On that final leg of her journey, crossing the Golden Gate, Lee was buoyed by well wishes and encouragement from friends, family and hundreds of American Legion supporters.

“I would get a dozen messages from vets almost daily, saying I was inspiring them,” she says. “They were starting their journeys. They’re saying these things to me. It was fuel for me. I would never have gotten here if it wasn’t for all the support. People are nothing without each other, really.”  

Henry Howard is deputy director of media and communications for The American Legion.