An Arizona man launched his third bicycle trek across the nation for veteran suicide awareness on Monday night from the Provo Maceys parking lot.
“It’s a great honor for Provo and says a lot about our community and how patriotic we are,” said Randy Edwards, retired command sergeant major and Utah County Veterans Organization coordinator, about Tom L’Italien’s decision to launch from Provo.
The 65-year-old Sun City, Arizona resident started his ride from Provo and will complete the approximately 3,000-mile solo journey with his arrival in Augusta, Maine. L’Italien completed similar treks in 2013 from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Boston, and in 2014 from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“This is an honor for me and I’m thankful of the opportunity I’ve been given,” said L’Italien of his bike treks.
According to L’Italien, he awoke in the middle of the night on June 10, 2013 and was told “by the Holy Spirit” to take a bike ride across the county to bring awareness to veteran death by suicide.
“Eleven days later I left,” he said.
Though not a veteran himself, L’Italien has four veteran brothers and has viewed firsthand the effects of war.
His brother Albert served in the army in the Vietnam War just out of high school. However, upon returning from war, L’Italien said, “there was something missing.”
“He left a happy-go-lucky guy and came back quiet, resolute, conflicted. Just a different person,” he said.
L’Italien’s first ride was to raise awareness about the problem of veteran suicide, but it was also his way of thanking his brother.
“I never knew what he went through, but that was my way of saying thanks for my freedom,” L’Italien said.
Albert met him at the finish line in Boston and gave him a hug.
L’Italien is no foreigner to hard work. As a younger man, he ran marathons and competed in half-triathlons. He also sticks to a year-round training regimen to keep him in shape for his annual rides across the U.S.
As a semi-retired school bus driver in Arizona, L’Italien drops off the children on his route at 9 a.m., then trains until 1:30 p.m. when he has to “get back on the bus.”
Despite his training, however, he said there was no way he could’ve trained for the mountains of Utah and Colorado he will pass through on this year’s tour of the country.
“It will be an interesting ride this year because of the mountains, but it will be worth it. The cause is worth it,” he said.
According to L’Italien, approximately 100,000 veterans have lost their lives to suicide in the U.S. since 2001.
He hopes his ride will not only raise awareness of that fact, but also raise awareness and money for the veteran suicide intervention program ALIVE. The program is sponsored by The Team Veterans’ Foundation (TTVF), of which he is a three-year board member.
ALIVE stands for Advocacy for Life in Veterans’ Empowerment, and L’Italien is hoping to get the program started in Utah or “at the very least to get people interested in forming a committee and discussing the program” because “Utah has one of the highest veteran suicide rates in the country,” he said.
However, to get the program started requires significant financial support, which he hopes to gain with the bike ride.
L’Italien is also riding as part of a national movement to “honor families of the fallen.”
According to Edwards, L’Italien will carry white flags for each state that are to be signed by gold star mothers (anyone who has lost a son or daughter in conflict). The flags will then be placed at the base of the 300-foot Statue of Responsibility, which will be built in San Diego and is scheduled for dedication on June 28, 2020.
The inspiration behind the statue comes from a quote by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who went on to publish the best-selling book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth,” Frankl wrote. “Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.
“That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”