Gary Linfoot spent the better part of the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks deployed to war as a pilot for an elite Army helicopter unit based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
But after his legs were paralyzed in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2008, he turned to cycling on a modified bike as an exercise and therapy.
Now, Linfoot and his wife, Mari, are biking about 530 miles from New York to Washington, D.C., starting on Sept. 11 with other wounded veterans during the Ride 2 Recovery 9/11 Challenge.
Linfoot is seeking closure for his own family and a way to pay tribute to those who have died in the wars.
"Looking back now, I don't think we ever would have imagined that the events of that day would have led to where we are now," Linfoot, 42, said in his home in Clarksville, just outside the post on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line.
"You think the worst case is that you don't come home at all," Linfoot said. "But you never expect to come home severely hurt like this. You always knew it was possible but you never thought it would happen to you."
Linfoot spent 13 years with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, called the Nightstalkers because their pilots are trained to fly in nighttime operations.
During his career, he piloted the AH-6 Little Bird, a small, armed attack helicopter used extensively in combat to provide air support to units on the ground.
"For me it was a big adrenaline rush, being in a small aircraft like that. It was like driving a race car in the sky," he said.
He deployed more than 20 times in the years following the 2001 attacks, often doing 30- to 90-day rotations four or five times a year.
But on a routine mission in 2008, his helicopter had a mechanical failure and lost power. When the chopper crashed, he felt his back explode in pain.
He tried to get out, but his legs wouldn't move. Hours later at a hospital in Iraq, he called his wife back in Clarksville with the news that he had broken his back.
At first, she couldn't even speak the word for his condition.
"I didn't use the word 'paralyzed' for days until I heard other people use the word, because I thought it was dramatic and I thought he was going to get better," Mari Linfoot said.
He was medically retired last year at the rank of chief warrant officer 5 and now trains young pilots at Fort Campbell on a helicopter flight simulator.
It's a way, he said, of staying connected to his unit and still contributing to the military.
About a year after the crash, Linfoot was looking for an activity that could keep him in shape and tried out a three-wheeled hand cycle, which he can pedal with his arms.
His wife now joins him on her bike for long rides in Clarksville and the surrounding area.
The couple decided to participate in the memorial ride as a way to raise money for organizations that help support wounded veterans.
Half the money they are raising through T-shirt sales will go to the Huey 091 Foundation, which helped provide Linfoot with a special wheelchair called an iBOT that can go up and down stairs and rise to eye-level height.
The other half will go to Ride 2 Recovery, which benefits mental and physical rehabilitation programs for injured veterans.
Mari Linfoot said the couple will wear jerseys that include a tribute to fallen soldiers from her husband's unit, including two pilots killed this month during a training accident at Fort Benning, Ga.
One of the pilots killed on Aug. 8, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Steven B. Redd, 37, of Lancaster, Calif., was the first person to respond to the crash that paralyzed Linfoot.
"He was the first friendly face that I saw," he said, noting that Redd accompanied him all the way back to the United States after his injury.
Approximately 350 people are participating in the bike ride over eight days, including wounded veterans, families of those killed on 9/11 and first responders to the attacks, according to organizers.
The riders will start at Liberty State Park in view of the World Trade Center site and head west to the United 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.
They will make stops at a number of historical sites before finishing at the Pentagon Memorial.
Linfoot said the trip will be a tribute to those who have died, but also a fitting end to an important decade that changed his family's lives forever.
"Going to where it all started, going to those places, I thought it could add that closure for us," he said.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.