Mission accomplished, journey continues

The team crossed the Hudson River on August 3. Photos provided by OFS unless otherwise noted.

The river water slapping him in the face, Ryan Menke swam along with the 32 Navy SEALS around him. The moment he had trained for was in front of him and the journey to that point had changed his life.

It had only been about a year ago that Ryan had met former Navy SEAL, Shannon Rusch, the man who so graciously pulled him into the endeavor of swimming across the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty and then running from Battery Park to the 9/11 Memorial to raise money for homeless veterans as the only civilian on the team of 35 men.

The two met when Ryan, the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales at OFS, reached out to have Rusch speak at an event he planned as an introduction of the company’s new brand identity and vision. He had heard Rusch would have the OFS team ready to take on anything by the end of his keynote speech.

“He (Rusch) has this talk called “The Warrior’s Mind” and in the beginning, people were welled up with tears but by the end, everyone wanted to run to the top of Kilimanjaro and do a thousand pushups just because his story is so compelling,” Ryan explained.

After the OFS event, Ryan and Rusch began to speak regularly and became good friends. Through this friendship as well as a renewed focus on a few aspects of his life where Rusch had challenged him, Ryan and some friends began a fitness accountability group.

“Truthfully, I had gotten a little lethargic with my physical activities,” the former collegiate athlete laughed.

Members of the fitness group have to take part in 30 minutes of exercise at least 20 days each month. The penalty for not completing the 20 days is a $50 “donation” into a kitty. At the end of the year, the person in the group with the most days of exercise gets to donate all the money to a nonprofit of their choice.

The swim.

“I had been doing this for a couple of months and I was feeling pretty good and heard about this challenge being organized that Shannon (Rusch) was involved in,” Ryan explained.

Rusch and a team of SEALS were going to take part in the first sanctioned swim across the Hudson River to raise money for homeless veterans. The fundraising challenge would include a two-mile swim with stops near Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty where the team would complete pushups and pullups before finishing the swim exiting at Battery Park and then completing a half-mile run to the 9/11 Memorial.

Seeking a rewarding challenge, Ryan asked if he could take part as well. Fortunately, Rusch was able to get the rest of the team of elite warfighters to agree to his involvement in the challenge, but he had to promise Ryan wouldn’t die completing it.

Diving in the 40-degree water in March to begin his training, Ryan was set on ensuring he didn’t fail and also, that he didn’t stand out. The opportunity to be involved was an honor because it allowed him to say thank you to the veterans and many others for what they have done to ensure the country’s security and freedoms. But, he didn’t want to detract from what these men and many other veterans had sacrificed for his freedom.

He wanted the spotlight to be on them.

The swimmer climbed aboard the Corps of Engineers ship after completing a section of the swim. Photo provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In preparation, he pushed himself and completed challenges like performing a 1,000 pushups in a day, six-mile swims and hundreds of pullups to ensure that he, the only civilian in the group, wouldn’t end up floundering.

But as he was training, he was also learning about the struggles veterans face coming out of service. Whether they were members of the elite warfighter teams or performed one of the hundreds of other jobs necessary to keep the U.S. military combat-ready, the transition from the military into civilian life could be devastating on veterans as they lose a sense of who they were as part of a mission-focused purpose-filled group.

Then, there are the difficulties that occur when you leave the military as a highly-trained soldier and have to assimilate into a totally different way of life where those skills aren’t necessary anymore.

“I met a guy whose first deployment was when his daughter was born and his last deployment was right before she graduated,” Ryan explained. “So for 18 years, he was on active duty 270 days a year as a SEAL while his daughter grew up with him home only nine days a year.”

Coming off of that rigorous, stressful career is difficult and can lead to mental health issues. Ryan sees the government as failing these men and woman. “We are dealing with the residual effects of that service as well as folks dealing with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries,” Ryan said. “They deserve the care they need.”

Completing pushups ad pullups aboard the ship. Photo courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers.

His family has a history of service. A great uncle served as a Navy test pilot and died in World War II — his name is on the memorial at Battery Park. Both his grandfathers served in the military, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corps. His father-in-law served in the Marines as well. He also has a cousin who was a C-17 pilot who flew secret ops missions that may have carried some of the men Ryan ended up in the Hudson River with earlier this month.

As Ryan’s story came out about his involvement with the Hudson River challenge, veterans and family members of veterans among the company’s employees came forward to thank him for what he was doing as well as tell him their stories. These stories motivated him to complete the challenge and continue to look for solutions for veterans.

Then, during an RV trip out west in the middle of his training for the event, Ryan and his family stopped over at a camping area in Rapid City, South Dakota. While they were there, a wind storm ripped through the area flinging people’s tents and belongings everywhere.

When it was over, Ryan was outside checking on a family whose tent had weathered the wind fairly well.

“You could tell that they had their car loaded up with everything they owned,” Ryan explained about the family.

The fundraiser came up while Ryan was talking with the husband because the family had seen Ryan working out at his campsite.

After he explained what he was training for, the man reached in his pocket and gave Ryan five dollars. Ryan tried to give it back to him. He could see that they had their own hardships to contend with, but the man refused.

“He was a veteran. His wife was a veteran. His son, who was also there, was a veteran. His son’s wife was a veteran. They were all veterans,” Ryan explained. “He said ‘absolutely not, there’s nothing more important to this family than veterans.'”

Back at their camper, Ryan choked up as he told his wife, Kimberly, about the man’s generosity. The moment cemented the importance of the mission in his mind.

The team ran from Battery Park to the 9/11 Memorial.

The OFS company family and Dubois County residents responded to the mission as well. A sack lunch sale at OFS garnered about $2,400 for the event. Other divisions of the company took donations and held contests to raise money. Families and other companies in the community came forward with thousands of dollars in donations.

The day of the event, unable to sleep, Ryan was up at 2 a.m. He knew he was ready but the anticipation was too much to allow him to rest.

He was at the starting point at Liberty Park by 7 and when 8:15 a.m. finally arrived, the group completed 100 pushups and 20 pullups before jumping in the water. The first leg was only about half a mile and Ryan had worked up to being able to swim a mile in 30 minutes but with the current, the shorter jaunt turned into a 45-minute slog.

Regardless, Ryan and the others remained positive. “How many people get to see the Statue of Liberty from that angle,” he said.

They got out on an Army Corps of Engineers ship and completed another 100 pushups and 20 pullups before taking on the second half-mile leg to Ellis Island.

From there they set off on the longest leg of the swim. During this leg, the group got spread out a bit as they fought the current of the river. Ryan was in a pack near the front and as they approached Battery Park, a line of New York City Fire Department tugs began shooting arches of water over them.

Ryan prepared to climb out at the end of the final leg of swimming.

Ryan stopped as they approached the boats shooting their water cannons and one of the guys in his pack asked if he was okay. Ryan was fine.

“I said, “I’m good, but there’s absolutely no way I’m taking this moment away from you guys,'” he explained.

He wanted all of the veterans to go first.

After they exited the water and began the run to the 9/11 Memorial, Ryan fell to the back of the pack there as well. He was just honored to be carried along in the moment with them as part of something bigger than himself.

During his experience, he was able to taste a brief moment of being part of a cohesive, purpose-driven team that is made up of elite Spartans who are egoless in their commitment to each other and the completion of a mission. “I don’t know how to describe that feeling,” he said. “The day after the event I was reflecting on that feeling. How do you transition from that?”

Although he admitted it was probably a millionth of what other service members experience in their time in the military, Ryan said he has a better understanding of what those men and women go through when they leave that purpose-driven team behind and become civilians.

Now, with this mission accomplished, the future is open for his next step; he’s seeking the next mission and hoping to change veterans’ lives in the process.

Ryan set out with a goal to raise $10,000 for the event but by the end, the amount of money he raised fell just short of $75,000. In total, the event raised about $250,000, and while that amount will make an impact for homeless veterans, at a cost of $10,000 per veteran, the group has already begun to brainstorm and plan for the next event.

Donations can still be made to the Gi Go Fund Charity page.