As the sun beats down on his face, drying up his skin and giving him sunburn, Joseph De la Garza just views this as a sacrifice he has to make to get the word out.
Staying in bed and breakfasts, hotels and camp grounds, De la Garza is on a mission to bring awareness to mental health in the military and break the stigma around PTSD through a very long bike ride.
The Harlingen native, who now resides on South Padre Island, served in both the Army and Navy between the years 1993 and 1996 and then again in 2004 and 2005.
After dealing with his own mental health issues, the cause is one that hits close to home for De la Garza.
In February, the 53-year-old retired from the Harlingen Fire Department after 20 years of service.
Following his retirement, De la Garza said it was time to do something with all his free time and use it to raise awareness.
“I’m going to make the effort and I’m going to go out there and put some skin in the game,” De la Garza said.
The goal of his ride is to spark a conversation among people about the mental health battles that a lot of veterans face.
Waiting for his train to arrive to take him back west to Sedalia, Missouri, De la Garza is cycling across the Katy Trail State Park in Missouri.
The park is one of the longest trails in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an organization that works to preserve unused train rail corridors and turn them into rail trails for biking and walking.
More than 200 miles long, De la Garza is using the trail as a starting point for his mission.
Often he records his rides and skits on the trail for Youtube and links to organizations that raise money to benefit veterans suffering from mental illness such as Pedal for PTSD and the Wounded Warrior Project.
Every day, he dedicates his ride to a veteran who is either currently living or has passed away.
“It’s not about me,” De la Garza said.
His ride is about bringing awareness to the mental health issues military veterans face every day and rid the stigma.
De la Garza said he would regularly make donations to charities, but since he has retired he decided it was time to do more.
Averaging 30 miles a day on bike, De la Garza has already biked more than 500 miles since beginning on May 1.
He will continue his ride and drive to Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois to bike his goal of 30 miles a day before heading home to finish his last 30 miles of the month-long journey.
By ALEXIS AGUIRRE Staff Writer