When Kiersten Downs, an Air Force veteran and graduate student, decided to bike 3,800 miles from San Francisco to Washington DC last summer she had no idea what she would run into.
It was a perilous trip - nasty drivers who blew her off the road, a 13,000 foot climb through the Sierra Nevadas, terrifying thunder storms, a series of vicious dogs, record breaking desert heat, a pulled quad muscle, tire blowouts and and a variety of other mishaps that threatened to end her journey.
But despite the problems and setbacks she pedaled on, averaging 70 miles a day.
Her cross-country trek was taken to raise awareness and funds, more than $50,000, for Student Veterans of America (SVA), a national group that helps vets transition from the military to campus life on over 800 colleges and universities across the country.
The trip, which began on June 1 and ended in Washington on August 5th, took her through 13 states and was “a huge personal journey” for the 30 year old vet, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida.
A self styled “activist” working on a PhD in anthropology, she served three tours overseas, including one in Iraq, and decided to use her athletic prowess to highlight the necessity of improving schools and educational assistance programs for returning vets. Her man aim was to facilitate change in the way we integrate veterans and address their unique challenges in higher education.
With this trip, she says she “knew there was the possibility that we could use media attention to push a very powerful message about student vets.”
The VFW sponsored her journey and vets of all ages, community leaders and journalists turned out in every state. Many biked along in a show of camaraderie and support.
"It was an incredibly inspiring adventure. And my message really was to say hey we are here we are on these campuses we are organized groups working to change the campus environment for our peers.”
Being a woman, she says, added to the buzz.
Her mother and a close friend tagged behind in a twenty foot trailer with water, food and bunk beds and stepped in when she was injured or had bike problems.
Her lowest moment was right at the start. She had a flat and injured her leg.
“I think if my mother, who’s a nurse, had not been with me, it could have ended right then and there. If I she had not made me rest for three days, I don't know if I would have been able to continue.”
With her mother’s help and despite the pain, Kiersten pressed on.
“I think determination is a trait that’s common among student vet’s. You have to just get out there and do it. You can do physical training, but 50% is mental.”
Downs joined the military at 18 right after graduating from high school. She wanted to get out of her small town of Melrose Pa. Her grandfather, now 88, and a WWII vet, was her hero and inspiration. The day she left for basic training he gave her a pewter bracelet inscribed with his army air force wings and said, “Remember that nobody wins in war.”
She spent seven years in the Air Force. While pursuing a BA in political Science at Binghamton University and serving in the Air National Guard she was called up and deployed to Iraq.
When she returned from overseas she went back to school and it was there that she discovered the paucity of services available to vets.
“It was a very isolating experience,” she says. “There were essentially no services for vets. I had to deal with the bureaucratic mess we all get tangled in all by myself.”