By Bob Whitmore
Marine’s coast-to-coast bicycle ride supports wounded veterans and their families.
It’s a common thread that runs through the precast concrete industry: precasters know how to get things done. Companies that are able to navigate through recessions and thrive in the competitive construction environment usually have another thing in common – an entrepreneurial risk-taker at the helm of the company. And when a successful precaster gets involved in a volunteer project outside the confines of the plant, good things can happen.
The true cost of war is not measured in dollars and cents but in the lives lost and forever changed by catastrophic injuries to the body and mind. While wounded veterans who returned home from Vietnam were often met with a shrug of the shoulders, those returning from recent conflicts have found a generally supportive public. But there is often a gap between what the Department of Veterans Affairs provides and what wounded soldiers require to deal with life-changing injuries.
Darryl Cloud is helping to bridge that gap through his efforts for the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps wounded veterans cope with life after severe battlefield injuries. His commitment is so deep that at a time in life when most 66-year-olds are making retirement plans, he completed an arduous coast-to-coast bicycle odyssey – 2,668 miles over 77 days – to raise money for track-driven, all-terrain “wheelchairs” and to bring awareness to the plight of wounded veterans and their families.
Cloud, the national sales manager for Concrete Sealants Inc. in Tipp City, Ohio, has often raised money for nonprofits after he started running in 2001. But it was in 2006 or 2007 that he found his true calling when he learned about the Semper Fi Fund at the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon. He visited the Semper Fi Fund exhibit at the marathon and ended up joining the Community Athlete Program, which includes about 300 diehards who are committed to long-term fundraising to help severely injured Marines put their lives back together. Formed in 2003 as a grassroots effort of five wives of active duty Marines, the Semper Fi Fund has grown exponentially to meet the ongoing needs of military families. It has served more than 15,000 wounded veterans and families in its short history and has raised $120 million to provide supportive equipment, home and vehicle adaptations, and services.
A former Marine Corps sergeant and Vietnam veteran, Cloud experienced war firsthand and knows intimately how devastating it can be. He and a high school buddy enlisted after graduation in 1967 during the height of the Vietnam War and in 1968 found themselves in the middle of the conflict.
“I was in a hostile fire situation for 15 months of my life,” Cloud said. “People were intent on killing us.”
His classmate and several other friends lost their lives during the siege of Khe Sanh, which was the longest single battle of the Vietnam War, lasting 77 days. But Cloud made it home.
“I never forget for one moment how lucky and fortunate I am,” he said. “I’m fine. I’m OK. I look back and realize I’ve lived three times longer than some of those guys lived.”
So it was natural that Cloud would merge his passion for running and other athletic endeavors with his passion for helping people – especially veterans. But in 2015, he took it to a whole new level.
He had run three Marine Corps Marathons on behalf of the Semper Fi Fund and started cross-training by entering sprint triathlons. Those endeavors would be more than enough for most middle-aged athletes, but it wasn’t enough for Cloud.
“I’m just cranking out the miles, and kept thinking, I want to do something really different. Really big,” he said.
Then one day about two years ago he was at the office when the wife of Concrete Sealants’ president Howard Wingert was visiting.
“Cindy Wingert was sharing a story about a friend whose husband had ridden his bicycle coast-to-coast. And that’s when the light bulb went off,” Cloud said. “I thought, that’s pretty cool. That’s big.
“And that’s when it hit me. We’ve got Marine Corps posts on either coast, and I thought from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego to MCRD-Parris Island (S.C.) is almost a straight shot across the U.S. And the seed was planted.”
Cloud’s big idea was to ride from boot camp to boot camp to raise money and awareness for the Semper Fi Fund. He started doing the research and realized it was not beyond his capabilities – although it would require extensive planning and a lengthy leave of absence from work.
“I talked to Howard and right from the start he was 100% behind me,” Cloud said.
A year of logistical planning, a special-order bicycle, gear, camping classes and training rides led to the start of the ride last August. His wife Julia learned how to read an elevation map and served as the navigator from their home in Sidney, Ohio. During their evening calls she would provide him with weather updates and a preview of the terrain he would be covering the next day.
He started at the main gate at MCRD-San Diego. He dedicated the ride to Maj. Larry Helber, an Ohio Marine aviator missing in action in Vietnam. Cloud first learned of the officer through a missing in action bracelet his brother gave him as a gift. But Cloud wanted a human connection to Maj. Helber, so he reached out months earlier to the family and had became close friends with three of Helber’s children and his brother. Helber’s daughter, Margaret Scott, traveled to San Diego to watch him start the journey.
“She said, ‘It’s like my dad was forgotten until you came along. You brought his memory back,’” Cloud said.
Cloud traveled alone, climbing the mountains east of San Diego and dropping down to the desert floor. He biked through 120 degree temperatures in the Sonoran desert, battled relentless headwinds across the endless roller-coaster hills of Texas and braved the long, narrow bridges over the bayous of Louisiana. He passed close to New Orleans and kept rolling through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, then up the coast through Georgia and on to Hilton Head, S.C., where he stopped 23 miles from Parris Island. He completed the ride Oct. 28, racing a storm and fighting intense winds on the last 20-mile leg to the Parris Island guard station. He arrived at the gate 15 minutes before the storm broke loose after probably the toughest 20 miles he’d ridden up to that point.
“It was physically challenging,” Cloud said. “It was emotionally challenging. I went six weeks without seeing anybody I even knew – and I’m a social guy.”
He was riding solo, but in addition to his wife’s and bosses’ support he had several classes of elementary students from around the country following his progress. He also had hundreds of fans following his regular posts on Facebook and a team of nine Semper Fi Fund Community Athlete Program volunteers who helped coordinate logistics with his wife.
“It worried us all,” said Laura Castellvi, senior manager of community outreach and events for the Semper Fi Fund. “Our biggest concern was that he was on his own, but he had it all figured out.”
About one-third of the time he would camp, laying back at night in the desert to watch the stars through the netting on his tent. His thoughts would turn to the friends he lost in Vietnam and to the wounded veterans he had met at Semper Fi Fund events. He did media stops along the way to talk about the Semper Fi Fund.
“He is able to share our mission so beautifully and so purely,” Castellvi said. “He’s not trying to call attention to himself,” she added. “He’s just trying to explain the effort.
“He embodies everything we believe in. He speaks so comfortably and eloquently and his passion just shines through.”
Cloud’s Boot Camp-2-Boot Camp tour has raised more than $70,000 to date for the Semper Fi Fund, a figure that leaves Cloud “tickled to death” and inspires awe from his Semper Fi outreach volunteers. But the ride will not be measured in money raised so much as in lives changed. The Action Trackchair vehicles the money will be used for move on a track (like a tank) and can go where wheelchairs can’t. The chairs are custom-fitted to the service member, who likely lost one or both legs and has severe mobility issues.
Castellvi remembers the presentation of an Action Trackchair to a service member in California.
“The first thing his wife said is, ‘Isn’t that wonderful? Now we can all go down to the beach together,’” Castellvi said.
Before they received the Trackchair, the wife would have to place her husband on a boogie board and drag him down to the beach, where he could sit, but not really play with the children. “Now they can be down there on the beach and he can be there with the children,” Castellvi said.
Cloud’s efforts will purchase at least four Action Trackchairs that will change the lives of the service members and the families who receive them.
“Kids are getting their daddy back,” Cloud said. “I was watching a video of a guy in New England. He had four or five sleds attached to his Track. He had the whole neighborhood in tow.
“The kids were just going nuts. He was flying down the road with these kids in tow. It was so cool.”
Cloud credits his supporters for the success of his Boot Camp-2-Boot Camp tour and other Semper Fi Fund activities. He said there are many people backing him up, including many of his longtime friends from the National Precast Concrete Association. Mike Vaughn, general manager of Vaughn Concrete Products in Henderson, Colo., gave an impassioned speech at NPCA’s annual meeting to make a final fundraising push just a few days before Cloud finished his ride.
“I really cannot express my gratitude to the association for the support I’ve gotten,” Cloud said. “There’s Mike and there are dozens of other people who have just stepped up to the plate and supported me and I am grateful beyond words.”
And so is the Semper Fi Fund. Cloud has raised more than $100,000 and counting through his efforts over the years, Castellvi said.
“We can never thank him enough and we are so grateful that he’s part of our team. We’re very appreciative of him and all those who support him. He always says that it’s not just him but all of the people behind him, so he carries all of you with him when he’s out on the road.”
To visit Darryl Cloud’s Semper Fi Fund page, go to precast.org/cloud.
Bob Whitmore is NPCA’s vice president of communication and public affairs.