While Casey Robinson was serving as a Marine in Iraq, his brain and shoulder were injured by an exploding mortar round, and he became so debilitated by post-traumatic stress disorder after being discharged that his health deteriorated.
"I used to be in terrible shape," he recalled. "I was eating badly. You don't care about much. Your concentration is not about your personal well-being."
But after a rigorous multiyear cycling regimen, the 32-year-old veteran from Santa Cruz was looking exceptionally fit Sunday. And in Palo Alto he joined 200 others -- most of them injured veterans and active-duty members of the military -- to take on the first leg of a seven-day, 450-mile bike ride to Los Angeles.
Organized by the Ride 2 Recovery program, the grueling event is meant to help heal injured service members by pushing them to their physical and mental limits. This was Robinson's fifth such ride. Encouraged to take up cycling while recuperating from his injuries, he said the therapy has been life changing.
"It definitely got me out of my slump," he said, smiling at his 32-year-old wife, Rachel, who was making the trip with him for the first time.
Robinson's experience is common, said Andy Duprey, a therapist at the VA's Palo Alto Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center. He said his patients are generally required to ride bikes every weekday because the exercise is vital to restoring their well-being, especially those with brain injuries, which can "affect every aspect of life."
Ulysses Adams III, a 38-year-old former Marine who lives in Oakland, has also benefited from bicycling.
"It's been a rough road," he said of his life after his service in Iraq, noting that he injured his back in a helicopter accident and has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Though he recently completed training to operate drones, which he hopes will land him a job with a defense contractor, Adams said he's had trouble getting medical benefits from the VA. As a result, he wound up homeless for a couple of years and "lost everything I owned." But even during those dark days, he became an avid cyclist with the Ride 2 Recovery program and said he's participated in 14 treks nationwide.
Debora Spano, a Ride 2 Recovery spokeswoman, who knows Adams well, said many injured service members display the same devotion to the cycling events.
"It's just a healing thing for some of these guys," she said. "They need it. They come back again and again."
Drawn from around the U.S. -- and two from Germany -- the participants in Sunday's event gathered at the VA medical center in Palo Alto shortly before 8 a.m. Escorted by police and caravans of helpers in vehicles, they took off for the first leg of the trip, which covers more than 50 miles, briefly stopping in Los Gatos and San Jose, before ending up in Gilroy.
The participants' hotel, food and other expenses during the ride are being paid by United Healthcare and other sponsors, said Spano.
Scott Shupe, 63, helped raise $400 for the event. Shupe was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts for injuries he suffered there.
He rode the first leg of the event, even though he recently suffered a heart attack.
"It's a tremendous organization," he said of Ride 2 Recovery, which was so important to him he came 600 miles to the event from his home in Provo, Utah. "I think it's important that you get involved."
Contact Steve Johnson at 408-930-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews.