The U.S. Air Force is the only service that can trace its roots to a garage start up—Wilbur and Orville Wright started as two bike makers who made the first successful powered airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. The Air Force Cycling Team celebrated that heritage by riding from the Wright Brothers National Memorial in North Carolina to the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va., for the second annual Memorial to Memorial (M2M) Ride, Sept. 7-10, 2023.
Across 330 miles and over 5,650 feet of elevation, 130 cyclists came together to have fun, celebrate heritage, and promote fitness, all while providing support to their wounded fellow service members. The vision for the ride came from former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, and retired Brig. Gen. Robert “Surf” Beletic, the M2M Ride Director, who believe this event can turn into a key recruitment tool for the Department of the Air Force.
“We think this can turn into a recruiting effort for both the United States Air Force and United States Space Force,” said former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Jim Roy, who rode the final day of the M2M ride. “This event runs through the heart of America. To see the people who were cheering us on along the way, that’s what General Goldfein is talking about when he says this can be a recruitment event. The spirit that we have as Americans to come out and support events like this—that’s the recruiting piece.”
The 2023 M2M ride raised more than $15,000 in donations for AFA’s Wounded Airmen & Guardians Program. Jim Roy’s wife Paula served as AFA’s Director of Airmen and Family Programs when that program was formalized 10 years ago. Since then, the program has provided more than $1 million in direct support grants.
“It makes my heart happy that we are supporting our wounded but at the same time helping each other as well as we build relationships,” Paula Roy said. “I never would have imagined it would become something like this today. It’s amazing.”
AFA became an official partner of the Air Force Cycling Team’s M2M ride in 2023. The partnership will help the team grow the event and contribute to recruitment and retention of the Air and Space Forces.
Riders start at the Wright Brothers Memorial as individual cyclists, but arrive at the Air Force Memorial as family. The journey, connections, and stories shared along the way reinforce the Air Force and Space Force cultures. These relationships make the Department of the Air Force stronger.
Riding for Recovery
Retired Master Sgt. Tim Williams isn’t sure how many years of cycling he has left but he’s determined to get as many miles in as possible while he can. Williams suffered a traumatic brain injury, among other injuries, while deployed to Iraq in 2011. It turned his life upside down as he tried to hide his invisible wounds, decline medical treatment, and bury himself in his work to remain in the Air Force.
In 2018, Williams was selected as his squadron’s Senior Noncommissioned Officer (SNCO) of the year. Two days later, he received “Do Not Retain” papers from his commander via email without explanation, triggering Williams to contemplate suicide.
“I had a time, a place, and a means that I was going to be gone,” he said.
Miraculously, someone from the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) program reached out to Williams in time, offering him the ‘encouragement to begin the medical treatment he needed. Williams finally felt like someone cared—and the fact that it was someone from the Air Force was especially meaningful. But as his invisible wounds began to heal, his other medical issues worsened, including his heart and degenerative muscle conditions.
After being medically retired in 2020, Williams was invited to the Air Force Warrior Games Trials in February 2022. Despite balance challenges caused by his injuries, he was able to return to cycling for the first time on a recumbent bicycle. He went on to compete in the 2022 Warrior Games where he won six medals. This year, Williams returned to riding upright and has already completed more than 4,000 miles.
As part of his continued therapy, Williams received a grant from AFA’s Wounded Airmen & Guardians Program to join the 2023 M2M Ride. On the first evening of the ride, Williams shared his story with the other riders.
“I may not be able to be on that bike for another couple of years and that’s OK. I may not be around with all the conditions I have going on,” he told his fellow cyclists. “As we ride this week, I’m hoping you guys will be part of my recovery. Standing here and telling you about my story, it helps raise awareness about other people, but it also helps my recovery. This is tough. Giving a speech about things that are deep and dark in your life is very tough. Every time I give it, it’s just a little bit more toward my recovery. I’ll never be fully recovered. I understand that. I understand my conditions are going to gain more momentum, but every one of you is a part of my recovery.”
In addition to being a recovery tool, the M2M Ride provided Williams with a network of peer support and camaraderie that he cited as his favorite part of the ride.
“It was an absolute honor to be invited and funded by AFA,” Williams said. “My speech was one of the toughest I’ve done because within this community of riders, they genuinely believe in the purpose of the Wounded Airmen & Guardians Program. Along the ride, it was expressed many times how most Airmen never knew the true impact that these programs have or that they even existed. I hope that my performance proved the power of adaptive sports and how these programs are vital to that success.”
Williams’ hopes were realized when the ride culminated at the Air Force Memorial on Sept. 10, when he received the M2M’s Orville Wright Award, presented goes to the rider who best represented the Air Force over the four-day course and includes an AFA Life Membership.
The Accidental Cyclist
Staff Sgt. Brittney Westbrook accidentally bought her M2M kit without realizing what it was for. When she joined the Air Force Cycling Team earlier this year, she thought she would be doing casual 10-mile rides with coffee breaks—instead, she found herself doing the first team event at RAGBRI, a seven-day, 530-mile ride across Iowa. That’s where she met the team coach, Josh “JJ” Johnson and Beletic, the M2M ride Director, who encouraged her to sign up for M2M—especially since she already had the kit.
Westbrook, a member of the Air National Guard who is currently working full-time at the Air Reserve Personnel Center on Buckley Space Force Base, Colo., wasn’t sure she was cut out for rides like M2M.
“I’m a personnel specialist working as a reserve retirements technician, so the most amount of fitness I get is a good finger workout from all the typing,” she joked. However, after successfully completing the ride, Westbrook said she felt “very accomplished, very excited, a little bit wet, but good.” She encourages others to join in and embrace the challenge.
“It’s four days of fun. It’s four days of love. There’s around 130 members and you’ll say good morning 130 times. Everyone is just so loving and supportive,” she said, adding that Coach Johnson will help develop a training schedule to get riders comfortable with goals.
Beyond the personal physical accomplishment, the M2M Ride allows riders to join a special community. Westbrook called her mom on day three to tell her how supportive and encouraging her fellow cyclists were.
“I didn’t grow up with my dad, so it’s really nice to have them look out for me and make sure I make it to the finish line each day,” she said. “I’d be trudging along, really feeling my legs burning and my energy leaving, and there would be one of my teammates riding up alongside me saying, ‘Way to go, Brittney! You’re killing it! Keep it up!’ I mean, talk about a boost!”
While many riders spoke of the family formed within the Air Force Cycling Team, some families showed up to M2M together. When the Air Force Cycling Team needed a truck driver to transport luggage and supplies between stops, Coach Johnson knew the man for the job—his dad, Steve Johnson. Before JJ joined the Air Force, he visited 34 different states accompanying his dad on his rides. They made a lot of memories during this time and JJ knew this was the perfect fit to make new memories.
For JJ, it’s more than just the time spent together.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world to have my dad be able to see the things I do in the military,” he said. “I wish everybody who served was able to bring their mom or dad to their bases where they served so they could get involved in their extracurricular activities and see them in their stories. We have so many Airmen, Guardians, Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Coast Guard that work hard, but their parents and families don’t get to actually see them doing that work. So I tried my best to bring them out so they can see it and it’s not just me telling them stories. They can actually visualize the people in my life that have helped me in my military career.”
Steve thrives off the positive energy he feels from the riders.
“I was in the Air Force 47 years ago. I never thought I’d be out hanging out with these upbeat people and it’s been fantastic,” he said.
The team felt the same way about Steve as they awarded him the Wilbur Wright Award for the most outstanding support team member, which included an AFA Life Membership.
Col. Ben Donberg and his father, Bill Donberg, were another father-son team at the M2M Ride. Ben is married to Lt. Col. Jaina Donberg, daughter of AFA President & CEO Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, USAF (Ret.), who joined the family for the last leg of the ride. Bill and his wife Phyllis have embraced the Air Force culture since their son joined.
“We were not a military family until Ben,” said Bill. “We’ve been indoctrinated, introduced, and involved in so much of their lives and their military lives now that it just blows us away. We’ve been to a lot of events in their lives but nothing compares to what we’ve experienced the last four days. I am so proud of this organization. The people that are in it. There is no better way than what we did right here. Two reasons we’re here. One is to support the wounded warriors and the other is connections. I knew nobody when I came into this. Four days of getting to know people and it will last forever. We’ll be back every year.”
Ride with Us
The Air Force Cycling Team plans to grow the M2M Ride deliberately and strategically. With a 60 percent ridership increase over 2022, the event planners are excited about the huge potential growth. As Airmen and Guardians—past and present—look for ways to be part of something bigger than themselves, the M2M Ride is delivering just that.
If you’re interested in joining the community, visit afcycling.com/m2m-ride.
If you’d like to support Air and Space Forces Wounded Warriors like Master Sgt. Tim Williams, make a donation.