Finding the Right Trail – Wheelers for the Wounded

Finding the Right Trail - Wheelers for the Wounded

Story by Taylor Westcott
Photos by Eddie Martinez

Originally Published in Issue 26 of 4Low Magazine

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The question is often asked, how can you make an impact on society? Many organizations offer to lead you down a trail to do so.  One organization will not only take you on the right trail, but will have you driving those trails with some very important passengers. It’s called Wheelers for the Wounded – Texas.

The journey for this organization began in 2008, with the organization’s founder, Jason Havlik. Havlik’s vision was to have local off-road clubs host an event in every state. Havlik caught wind of Midnight Four Wheelers and its prior hosted events, and felt like it was the right club to host an event for Wheelers for the Wounded in Texas. That summer, he reached out to the club’s event coordinator, Richard Cruz. After conversing with Havlik, Cruz and his wife, Lynne formed a 501(c)(3) organization, originally called Wheelers for the Wounded – San Antonio in October 2009. The organization name changed to Wheelers for the Wounded – Texas in 2014.

The first event was held in 2009 in Marble Falls, Texas. Jean Eads, a member of the Marble Falls Chamber of Commerce, was a key contributor in making the Main Event possible. Eads connected with local schools, The Boy Scouts, and other organizations to help get volunteers for the event. The Cruz’s faced many challenges in pulling off this first event. His search for a venue that met all of the needs on his list while holding the same values proved to be a major obstacle. WFTW was not yet a 501c(3) organization, which meant donations were hard to come by, and attendance to the event was a big unknown.  Another major obstacle was getting the military bases to agree to allowing their wounded soldiers to attend the event. Taking soldiers and their families on the trails sounded risky, this led to Cruz working to evaluate what trails would be appropriate. The search led Cruz to The Hidden Falls Adventure Park, where the Park owners understood the vision that both Cruz and Havlik had. The first event consisted of fifty off-road vehicles that took turns taking 200 soldiers and their families on the trails.

When asked about the response the event received from veterans and drivers, Cruz stated that it was overwhelming and that it was what convinced him and his wife to start Wheelers for the Wounded – San Antonio that October. “My wife and I have been blessed with great careers and business, but it is a blessing to have been involved with this organization and we consider it one of the most rewarding accomplishments of our lives.”

The organization started with 13 officers and directors that gave the organization a vision that included more than just the Main Event. Christmas toy drives and other fundraisers benefitting soldiers and their families soon followed. Cruz served as the president for six years, before handing the torch to Dan Engerran. During his time as president, Engerran grew the organization further. His new board of directors brought in new sponsors which enabled the organization’s forward momentum. Under Engerran’s leadership, the organization was able to bring North West Jeep, Dodge of Houston, and Bullion Stacker on board, who helped brand the WFTW – TX program and appealed to additional sponsors and volunteers. This led to the organization holding its largest event in May 2017 with over 1400 attendees.

The current president is retired Army veteran Jerry Sargent who had heard about WFTW when it was still in its discussion stage while he was stationed in Kansas. Jerry was in the process of assisting an off-road club with a Kansas event when he was reassigned to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio. In search of a local off-road club to join in his new area, Jerry attended his first WFTW event as a driver. When asked what it was like attending his first event, Jerry answered “In true Texas fashion, it was done right. It was an awesome experience. The outpouring of honest respect for our wounded warriors and the sacrifices they made for our freedom was amazing.”

Jerry told us when he first joined the organization, he never sought out the role as president and was honored when he was approached to take on the role. Jerry knew the first time he heard about the concept, that this was the organization for him. Though he didn’t foresee how involved he would be, he knew it was a worthy cause. “I consider it an honor to be able to serve and honor our veterans who have sacrificed for our country in a way that, thankfully, I did not. I feel it is my duty to support my brothers and sisters in arms and this is a unique way to show that support. I get to work with great people, both civilians and veterans, who respect our military and want to show their support in whatever way they can.”

One of the biggest obstacles the organization has faced has been, and still is, getting the veterans out to the event. The organization understands that most are dealing with issues, physical or mental, which complicates their ability to partake in the event.

Additionally, fewer physically wounded soldiers are coming back from war zones than when the organization started, which is a good thing, and many have been moved out of the military and into the VA system, complicating the process of reaching out to wounded warriors. Conversely this has helped WFTW – Texas to reach veterans of past wars who are equally deserving and able to benefit from the program. While the attendance may vary a bit from year to year overall the number of veterans and their family members has grown over the years with over 450 in attendance in 2017.  WFTW – TX relies on the off-road community who volunteer their time and vehicles knowing that for that weekend, it is not about them, but that veteran or family member and making sure they can enjoy a day that is completely dedicated to them.

One of the concerns addressed earlier is the safety of the trails. Michael “Mike” Bartoszek – President of Military Jeepers, retired Sergeant First Class of 21 years, who still serves in the Army as a Gunnery Sergeant 13, is the man in charge. He has been a trail guide for the organization since the fourth year of the event. Mike and the members of his club take their   trail guides duties seriously. They spend many weekends at Hidden Falls Adventure Park running trails and planning, making sure that the trails are safe for the drivers, and more importantly, the service men and women, and their families. Mike first attended the event in its second year as a driver. Mike started “getting his feet wet” with the Mint 400 and has had a vast amount of off-road experience since. When asked how the organization had impacted his life with his time in the military, he stated “I am very proud of what I have done in both the military and organization. This event allows me to help my fellow vets escape the daily grind, and hopefully brings a little fun into someone’s life.”

Each veteran is a unique individual, and each one gets something different out of attending the event. Some come back the following year to participate as a passenger again, and some come back with a vehicle of their own to participate as a driver. One veteran, Daniel Peterson, did just that. Peterson is a former Marine 3rd Battalion 1st Marines Scout Sniper Platoon, deployed twice, and fought in Afghanistan in 2010. While fighting, he stepped on an improvised explosive device – IED – which led to him losing both of his legs, along with many other injuries. Aside from the physical injuries, the incident left behind mental wounds as well. The first year Daniel was approached he declined the invitation to the Main Event. The second year he accepted the invitation but had concerns. Being a double amputee, Peterson wasn’t sure how handicap accessible the event would be. Attending with him was Jim Hatfield, a good friend and the general manager at Northwest Jeep and Dodge – one of the organization’s sponsors.

Hatfield attended the event as a driver with Daniel as his passenger.  “…Jim Hatfield had a really built rig, and on the first trail it was like a five-foot drop just to start. From there, I was instantly hooked…” A week after attending the event, Daniel purchased a 2013 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon that came with a basic lift. Wanting to customize and build his rig, Peterson attended a welding and fabrication class so he could learn and do the work on his rig himself. Since first buying the vehicle, it has gone through some dramatic changes and continues to as he wheels it more. Since his first event in 2013, Daniel has only missed one event and has participated as a driver twice. Participating as a driver in this event, he enjoys being able to show someone who has never experienced rock crawling, the things these vehicles are truly capable of. He remembers being in that seat for the first time and the impression it left.

According to Peterson, when he looks back, he never saw this coming. The event impacted his life in a way he never imagined. It gave him another trail to go down, where he could devote his time and passion. “I thought I would still be trying to hold on to something that I wasn’t anymore, being a warrior was my life, and although that will always be a part of me, it’s nice to be able to put that behind me and move on with something else that I love.”  Since retiring and attending his first event, Daniel has graduated from two welding schools and married.  He spends his time customizing his rig and doing metal work in his garage.

Not all veteran’s come back as wheelers, but for some who came, it changed their life. Steve Copsey, a Marine Lance Corporal CPL in Heavy Helicopter Squadron 462 who served in Desert Storm, came across a Facebook post about the event in 2018. After having a traumatic string of life events starting in 2017, he convinced his wife that they should attend the event to get a break from the things they were dealing with at home. They took a four-hour drive to Marble Falls and were taken aback by what they were greeted with. “We were greeted by everyone from the organization as well as fellow Jeepers and welcomed as if we were family.  We had not planned to participate in the ceremony dinner, we were only going to discover the world of off-road, escape from our lives back home and make a donation to the cause. The overwhelming sense of acceptance had me hooked the second we shook hands.  It was exactly what we needed at the moment… They offered a shoulder to lean on, ears to listen and a world of empathy I had never seen before, or after, I didn’t realize I needed an ear to listen. You will go home after the sun goes down feeling as if the weight on your shoulders has been lifted.”

Being a disabled veteran, Copsey, struggles with the physical and mental pain, but knows that life must keep moving forward. After the event, not only did he find changes in himself, but his wife did as well. Gaining new family members within the off-road community, he knows he and his wife will always have support.

This organization has had a great impact on America’s service men and women not only through the Main Event each year, but by supporting veterans in the community when they need it the most. The Main Event is much more than just a day outside. This event is a fun filled day just for our heroes and their families to get away from any troubles they may be dealing with, not to mention a little thrill and adventure. There are many different ways to say thank you to our service men and women, this is one of the ways that the off road community relays that message

The Main Event is always held on the first weekend in May at the Hidden Falls Adventure Park in Marble Falls, Texas. In 2018 a new Fall event was added in conjunction with Columbus Day Weekend in October and was a great success. Drivers and volunteers are always welcome and appreciated. If you would like to learn more on how you can become part of the organization, donate, or invite our heroes to come out for a day of fun visit www.WFTWTX.com

*Wheelers for the Wounded is a fully tax deductible 501(c)(3) charity and is completely run by volunteers.

 

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