Veteran Tom von Kaenel, 59, has biked nearly 6,000 miles across the country to Alaska to honor members of the military who’ve died since 9/11.
For the past four months, the South Carolina resident has biked an average of about 50 miles a day.
He arrived in Juneau on Sunday.
Tom von Kaenel is the last one off the ferry late Sunday morning. He walks his red steel touring bike off the M/V Matanuska wearing black bike shorts and a chartreuse wind breaker. Juneau is his last stop for now.
“I’ve been looking forward to it for about 120 days and it was certainly worth the wait, certainly worth the wait,” he says.
von Kaenel’s bike odometer reads 5,793 miles.
This isn’t the first time von Kaenal has crossed the country by bike. Two years ago, he pedaled 4,300 miles from Washington State to Washington D.C. He rode with another bicyclist and had a support vehicle.
This journey, von Kaenel decided on an unsupported solo bike ride touching the corners of the country, from Key West, Florida, to Juneau, Alaska. He was asked, “Why Alaska?”
“I said, well, it’s part of the 50 states. We want to remember those 22 Alaskan service members that died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every state is equally important. Some people say, ‘It’s only 22 service members.’ But to those people that are the family members or friends of those 22 service members, that is the world to them. For some people, that’s the sum of their lives,” vonKaenel says.
von Kaenel started riding March 1 from Clemson, South Carolina and biked through 14 states. In each one, von Kaenel holds a memorial ceremony where he reads the names of service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. California had the longest list with 723 names.
“We only do that one time in each state. Sometimes it’s been in a small town. Sometimes it’s been in the capital. And sometimes it’s been with other organizations. Sometimes it’s just with a very small group of people,” von Kaenel says. “But it is important that we honor the sacrifice that those men and women made and it’s important that we tell their families and their friends that we remember.”
von Kaenel wants to eventually bike to every state. He’s already planning another trip in May.
His motivation stems from an accident he had in 2009 while biking the French Pyrenees.
“The bike hit a rear wheel, flipped me up and crashed. My left hip dislocated and acted as a battering ram and shattered my left pelvis into 20-something pieces. They call it a seagull pattern because the break resembles a flock of seagulls,” von Kaenel says.
He ended up in a hospital in France, then was medevaced to a U.S. military hospital in Germany. von Kaenel spent 18 days in a trauma ward with wounded and injured service members coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, some who didn’t survive.
von Kaenel says the military hospital saved his life and his experience at the trauma ward transformed him.
“I said I’ve got to give back. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to raise the awareness of the sacrifices that these people are making,” he says.
And that’s why von Kaenel bikes thousands of miles across the country. He also wants to honor the families of the fallen. And the scores of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and other life altering injuries.
von Kaenel served 20 years in the Army, including 12 years in Germany during the Cold War. He never saw combat.
The final miles between the ferry terminal and the Alaska State Capitol completes his more than 5,800 mile expedition.
“I’m going to be savoring these 14 miles each mile along the way. I really look forward to the trip. I really look forward to arriving there and I know it’s going to be a little pang of sorrow to know that it’s completed,” von Kaenel says.
At 2 p.m. Thursday, von Kaenel will read the names of 22 Alaska service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. The public memorial will be in the Beltz Committee Room in the Tom Stewart Legislative Office Building.