A couple from Sandy, Utah, recently biked 2,495 miles from the Canadian border to the Mexico border to raise money for veterans and to give back to the nonprofit that has helped them so much.
“A lot of people do 5Ks to raise money, and there’s a lot of Ks between Canada and Mexico,” says Dean Zenoni, who with his wife, Lorri, decided to bike the Great Divide Mountain Route to raise money for veterans with disabilities, injuries, or mental illnesses.
They ended up riding 802 5Ks with a goal to raise $100,000, or around 124 dollars per 5K. “The reason we chose that fundraising number is because it was such a big event for us,” Dean explains.
They have raised $45,920 so far.
A Veteran Helping Veterans
Dean Zenoni served in the Marine Corps for 24 years before he was injured on active duty. He was serving in Iraq and was riding in a mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP, when they hit a hole caused by a previous explosion. Dean was slammed around the vehicle, and the jostling gave him a spinal injury and a traumatic brain injury. “At the time, I was fit and active, and it took some of those activities away, which was very depressing,” he recalls.
Dean had to cut his military service short because of his injury. “It takes time for your retirement to kick in and for disability to get approved when you’re injured, and for your educational benefits to start,” he explains. Semper Fi & America’s Fund helped Dean through this transitional period “with a tuition grant to span that gap till [the money] kicked in. And [previously], I didn’t know that was available.”
Now, the Zenonis are on a mission to raise money for the Semper Fi & America’s Fund. “[They] have helped me out a great deal since I got out of the Marine Corps,” says Dean. “And I’m at a point in that recovery process where I felt like it was time: we need to try to give back and bring some awareness to programs that are out there for our fellow veterans.”
By biking for veterans, the Zenonis want to raise awareness and funds to help the program reach more people. “There’s a spot on the website (semperfifund.org) where you can put your information in, and then a case manager will contact you,” Dean explains. “They sit you down over the phone and figure out where the gaps are in your transition and recovery, and what your family needs. Then they figure out where they can help.” He continues, “The thing we really like about Semper Fi & America’s Fund is that it’s full circle—it’s not just getting you a bike or a dog. It’s everything. The first thing [Semper Fi] helped me out with was to see what was available that I could still enjoy, and with the transition from active service to civilian life,” Dean says.
The bike ride to raise money for this fund included a total of five states: Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana. The Zenonis rode it in 59 days starting June 5 and ending August 8, for a total of 2,495 miles. The Great Mountain Bike Route or (GDMBR) is the world’s longest, off-pavement mapped cycling route, with 90 percent of the route on unpaved roads. It is also known as one of the top 100 National Geographic American Adventures.
Many friends and family members were supportive of the Zenonis’ bike ride adventure and donated. The Gregorys said, “We are so proud of your accomplishment and you dedication to all veterans!”
Carolyn Johnson said, “Team Zenoni are absolutely awesome! Love you, Lorri, my friend. I am so proud of you and your husband for this amazing accomplishment. Thank you for supporting and blessing our veterans!”
And an anonymous donor said, “May God keep you safe! Our son is a veteran, #SemperFi. Our family is very well aware of the devastating impacts of mental illness. Thank you for bringing awareness to this very serious illness.”
As they set out on this journey, Dean’s wife, Lorri, said that most days were exactly what they expected. “It felt pretty amazing,” she recalls. “We did it in 59 days when we had actually set out to do it in 62 days, so we exceeded our goal.”
But the entire route didn’t go as planned, and the Zenonis had some difficult days. “As we started to get into New Mexico and the monsoons came, there were a lot more detours because the mud is so thick there that you can’t ride through it,” says Dean. “And for a couple of days, we did ride through it. We rode through it for about 25 yards, and then you weren’t riding anymore. And then you’re pushing or trying to get all the mud off, and it’s caked up on your tires.”
After the mud difficulties, the couple thought that they had hit the worst of their ride. But at their highest peak in Colorado, after they had climbed 11,900 feet on their bikes, the unexpected came. “When we got up there, a huge thunderstorm was rolling in, we didn’t think we were going to make it to our destination,” says Lorri. “So, we started to come down from that peak, and we came down to about 11,500 feet and realized that we were not going to make it.“
Panicked, the Zenonis quickly set up a tent to get out of the rain and thunderstorms. “We slept at 11,500 feet in the tent. And there was downpour and lightning,” Lorri recalls.
Then the storm stopped, and the sun came out and “miraculously, there was a tree that someone had carved a cross into. We did not see it before it all. I mean, it was there, but because of the way the sun hit in the afternoon after the thunderstorm, it made it stand out. Literally like as if someone cut a tree down and left about 10 feet of the tree and then carved a cross out of it. It was so cool,” she says.
Helping Veterans Through Their Personal Storms
In the end, the Zenonis were safe, and they made it out of the storm. When they made it through that difficult experience, it was brighter and more peaceful than it had been the entire ride. And that’s what Semper Fi & America’s fund is for—to help veterans through their personal storms and to give them the resources and help they need to make it to their bright future.
Many veterans suffer from suicidal inclinations and self-harm thoughts. In 2018, there were on average 17.6 veteran suicides per day, according to the National Veteran Suicide Prevention report. In 2019-2020, the number of suicide attempts ranged from 300-550 a week. Many veterans also struggle with post traumatic stress, or PTS. Dean was diagnosed with PTS when he came home from active duty. According to the Department of Defense’s 2015 evaluation of U.S. military casualty statistics, among deployed troops, there have been over 138,000 new diagnoses of PTS from 2000 to June 2015. And According to Cohen Veteran Bioscience studies, two-thirds of veterans who have PTS, within an Afghanistan and Iraq veteran population, also have major depression.
Semper Fi & America’s Fund can help veterans with mental illness, among other challenges. The organization’s website states, “[We] are dedicated to providing immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to combat wounded, critically ill, and catastrophically injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families. We deliver the resources they need during recovery and transition back to their communities, working to ensure no one is left behind.”
Biking for Awareness
Lorri said that one local veteran reached out to them while we were on the route. “He told us that our adventure inspired him to get back on his bike,” she recalls. “He then told us that after getting out there, he felt less depressed.”
Sometimes it can be hard to find the silver lining or the motivation or the resources to improve your mental health. Just like at first the Zenoni’s did not see the tree with the cross, even though it was there the entire time. Lorri said, “Veterans don’t know that these resources [like the Semper Fi & America’s Fund] are available to them.”
With the Semper Fi & America’s Fund, veterans, and family members of veterans may wonder how long this resource is available to them. Dean explains, “It’s a lifetime. You’re always enrolled with them. My counselor, my case manager, just called me last month and asked me how things were going.”
How to Help
Throughout their experience biking for veterans, the Zenonis said that they encountered wonderful people who were willing to help. “There are amazingly good and kind people in this world, and we found them,” says Lorri. “Everywhere we went, people were generous and hospitable. You know, people knew we were doing something, obviously, we’re on a bike that’s fully loaded with gear. People would stop and ask, ‘Do you need anything? Do you have enough water? Enough food?’”
Now, the Zenonis are asking for donations so that Semper Fi & America’s Fund can ask veterans similar questions: Do you need anything? Do you have enough money? Enough psychological help?
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