Retired Army Col. Chris Kolenda recently completed a bicycle journey of approximately 1,700 miles — traveling from Spalding, Nebraska to Arlington Cemetery in Virginia — to honor the 15th anniversary of six men under his command who died while serving in Afghanistan.
Kolenda's journey even had an operation name: "Fallen Hero Honor Ride."
The six paratroopers who lost their lives in Afghanistan, back in 2007: Pfc. Chris Pfeifer, Sgt. Adrian Hike, Spc. Jacob Lowell, Staff Sgt. Ryan Fritsche, Capt. David Boris, and Maj. Tom Bostick.
"They all died following my orders, doing things that I asked them to do, being in a place I asked them to be," Kolenda recalls. "They deserve to have their stories told, and they deserve to have their sacrifices remembered."
Kolenda, who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, began his cross-country trip in late September. The soldiers' names are also etched on the top crossbar of his Specialized Aethos road bike.
"So I can see them," explained Kolenda. "Whenever I need a bit of motivation, all I need to do is look down."
The former commander visited the gravesites of the six fallen soldiers.
Throughout his ride, Kolenda raised money through his Saber Six Foundation for scholarships and other assistance to the families of veterans who served in his former unit, the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment.
At last count, Kolenda's efforts drew more than $92,000 in donations.
According to Omaha.com, several of those who served with Kolenda died by suicide. Others "have been plagued by depression and addiction."
A few months ago, Kolenda, 56, reasoned, "I said, 'Maybe I can do some good by doing this.' The ride honors the dead, and the foundation supports the living."
The Nebraska city of Spalding — the starting point for Kolenda's "Fallen Hero Honor Ride" journey — was Pfeifer's hometown.
While in Spalding, Kolenda met with Pfeifer's friends and family — his parents, Mike and Darlina Pfeifer; his widow, Karen, and daughter, Peyton, who was born two days after her father's death — for a service at St. Michael’s Cemetery.
"After a lot of years go by, a lot of times things get brushed to the side," Karen Pfeifer, who now lives in Houston, told Omaha.com in a recent phone interview. "Bringing this to light again, it shows people still care."
According to Omaha.com, Kolenda commanded the 1-91 Cavalry in Afghanistan, and "gained a reputation as a pioneer in counterinsurgency" for his work with local Afghans, along with his "success in getting insurgent leaders to switch sides."
Top Pentagon leaders subsequently tapped Kolenda to serve on the staff of the Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Michèle Flournoy, a senior Pentagon policymaker during the Obama administration.
Also, Kolenda reportedly represented Defense Secretary Robert Gates in early peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Kolenda retired from the Army in 2011.
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