WASHINGTON, D.C. –
Five National Guard Soldiers rode their bicycles 350 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., all to cycle out sexual assault. The Soldiers, from the West Virginia and Virginia National Guard, rode May 9-13, 2018, battling rain storms, mud pits and scorching temperatures to show sexual assault survivors that they’re not alone, to bring awareness to the sexual assault and harassment prevention programs within our military and to show that sexual assault will not be tolerated.
West Virginia National Guardsman Sgt. 1st Class Mike Cochran created the event. He’s worked as a state trooper in West Virginia and has served as a trainer for the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program and as a victim advocate. He’s also a survivor.
“Whenever I do my trainings, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable talking about being molested when I was a kid,” Cochran said. He explained that telling his own story has helped him heal, but that it’s also helped others. “The first time I talked about it, I had someone come up to me and say, ‘Hey man, I need to talk to you. The same thing happened to me.’ This was a guy who had never told anyone before and he said, ‘Because you said that, I feel like I can finally get this off my chest.”
That experience prompted Cochran to continue sharing his story. “Almost every time, without fail, a guy would come up and tell me that this happened to him when he was a kid and I thought maybe I was on to something so I’ve been pretty open about it,” he said. “Being a man who has done the kinds of things I’ve done, if I get up and talk to them and if I can get up and do that without being too upset about it and the more I hang it out there, the easier it gets and the easier it is for people to come and talk to me and that’s why I do it.”
The idea of the ride came two years ago, in 2016. Cochran did a shorter ride, from Pittsburgh, to Cumberland, Maryland, and started talking to his wife about making it an annual event to raise awareness.
“We like to do things that are tough,” Cochran said about himself and his fellow Soldiers. In 2017, he planned for the inaugural Cycling Out Sexual Assault Ride, which is when Virginia National Guardsman, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Brown got involved.
“Both me and Mike were at a SHARP event and he was talking to me about it,” Brown said. An injury kept him from riding last year, but he was determined to participate this year. “I jumped in with both feet.”
Brown has served as victim’s advocate for five years and has his own experience with sexual assault.
“I had a family member be a victim of sexual assault and so this is personal for me,” Brown said. “I know how traumatic it can be for a family and for my military family. And it doesn’t just happen in the military, it happens everywhere and we’re trying to let everyone know that’s wrong and that we care and that it won’t be tolerated.”
Joining Cochran and Brown on the ride were retired Command Sgt. Maj. Harvey Kerstetter and his son, Staff Sgt. David Kerstetter, and Sgt. 1st Class David Casteel. They rode 60-70 miles each day, first along the Great Allegheny Passage and then along the 184.5 mile towpath within the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park.
On the first day, they rode from Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, then rode to Cumberland the second day. They rode from Cumberland to Hancock, Maryland, on the third day, then from there to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia on the fourth day before finally finishing the ride in D.C. on the fifth day.
They made some detours along the way for major historic and scenic sites, like Antietam National Battlefield. They crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and the Eastern Continental Divide and the Allegheny Mountains.
“It’s life-changing,” Brown said. “We went up into the Allegheny Mountains and just knowing that we could ride over a mountain was huge.”
The five men finished their ride at the Lincoln Memorial, each clad in a teal t-shirt emblazoned with the message, “Protecting our People Protects our Mission.”
“The ride was great,” Cochran said at the finish, mud smeared across his legs and bike. “It was miserable, but it was great.”
He wants to expand the ride next year and plans to invite SHARP representatives from all 54 states and territories to participate.
“Everyone is into the hardcore hooah, hooah stuff, and no one likes to talk about this,” Cochran said, recognizing that the subject is difficult for many, including survivors, to discuss. He said he wants to encourage more people to participate in prevention efforts and to get more people involved in both the ride and sexual assault prevention.
“It’s hard,” he said. “But I get what hardship is about.”
Cochran said the support given to him by his family and West Virginia’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, Capt. Brittany Watson, was invaluable. Lisa Malloy served as support for the five riders, helping haul their gear from point to point and providing fuel for the riders along the way.
“Cycling out sexual assault, that’s what we’re doing,” Brown said. “We’re letting survivors know that they’re heard and that they’re not in the fight alone.”