Operation Return to Duty

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers magazine

On April 30 one Soldier will hop on his bicycle and begin a 2,000-plus-mile journey from Maryland to Washington. His route will take him through Pennsylvania and onto the Northern Tier Bicycle Route, at times skirting the Canadian border. It is a 35-day, self-contained trip: Just one man on a bike, on a mission.

It may sound a crazy, but the trip is for a good cause; Rich Blake is cycling to his new duty station to raise $25,000 to split between The 6th Branch, a community service organization he helped found, and Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness, a pro-bono health services charity. His involvement with these organizations and this fundraising effort are purely private initiatives.

A former Marine and Iraq veteran, Blake will be re-commissioned into the Army as a captain once he reaches his new duty station at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “I will serve in the field of military psychology, and hopefully make a career out of it and try to help other service members that have experienced some of the same things that I have,” he said.

Blake spent his entire enlisted career with the India Company, 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He described his experiences there as the most meaningful of his life.

“We were a unit that had a lot of adversity. We lost 14 Marines in an MV-22 Osprey crash, April 8, 2000, so that was before 9/11,” he said. “(We) went on to be part of the initial invasion in Iraq and that summer.”

While deployed, he found a lined notebook in a weapons cache. Half of it is taken up by what appears to be a journal, and covered with a dust jacket resembling the American flag. Blake flipped the book over and chronicled his own experiences on the remaining pages. “I hope to one day get the other side interpreted so I can find out what it actually was,” he said.

After the fighting in Iraq ended for him, Blake came home and went to school. The transition back to “normal” life wasn’t as difficult for him as it was for some of his fellow veterans, and he decided to pursue psychology.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Florida Atlantic University, Blake went on to pursue his doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Loyola University in Maryland.

“I just felt like with my insight I could bring a lot of street credibility to the psychology field and really help (other veterans),” he said. As a Marine infantryman and combat veteran, he has a unique understanding of the stigma often associated with military mental health services, and believes he can draw from his experiences to fight that stigma.

While at Loyola, he met up with other veterans in the area who shared his desire to continue a life of service.

“We were all missing the mission and duty that we once experienced in the service, so we just decided to get involved with the community,” Blake explained.

Though there were already a variety of national community service organizations, he was driven to use his military experience to help his local community and co-founded the Baltimore-based The 6th Branch in January 2010.

“We really wanted to take our skills we learned in the military, our organizational skills, the leadership skills, and really get aggressive with local initiatives and try to do some very measurable change in neighborhoods that really, really need it,” he said. “So instead of just volunteerism, or serving to serve, more targeted — taking that military mentality, developing a strategy and really going after it.”

Blake has served as the organization’s executive director since its inception, but will be transferring those duties to a successor before his bicycle tour. He was also an outreach coordinator for The 6th Branch’s sister organization, the Veteran Artist Program, which focuses on propelling veterans interested in careers in the visual and performing arts into the professional realm.

“We’ve been able to collaborate. They add artistic elements to our community service projects and we support their shows and exhibits, and it’s been a really good relationship,” Blake said.

He believes, after training to be a therapist at Baltimore Veterans Hospital for two years, that community service is “potentially more therapeutic” than some traditional therapies, or would at least be a good augmentation to those therapies. He encourages other veterans who want to continue to serve to seek out community service opportunities, or even start their own groups.

“I think a lot of times we come home and we don’t have that passion, and that’s when depression seeps up and things like that,” he said. “There are so many ways to get involved, but I would just encourage them to do anything they care about.”

Blake chose to bicycle to Washington as a continuation of his own desire to serve. Over a post yoga class beer, Blake was tossing around ideas with his friend and founder of Semper Fidelis, Elijah Sacra. That’s when they hit on the idea of a cross-country bicycle trek.

“It turns out a couple of weeks later he knew somebody that was into bikes, and it all came around. I said, ‘All right, I’m just going to do it,’” Blake said, grinning. “We’re calling it ‘Operation Return to Duty.’”

The trip will be grueling. “I need to clock about 110 miles a day to make it on time for duty,” he explained.

“Physically, I’m going to be tired, but emotionally I think it’s probably going to be rejuvenating,” Blake said.

“I mean, I’m wrapping up the majority of my doctoral training, where I’ve been doing a lot of studying, a lot of reading, and this is going to be really getting out there and getting to see some things, and get away from books and onto a new chapter of my life.”

Blake wanted to pursue a career in psychology with the Army, because it gave him the best opportunity to work with people who have combat experience, he explained, adding that the Marine Corps doesn’t have psychologists.

“I’m proud to be a Soldier now.”

For Blake, the ride is as much about rejoining the military as it is about raising funds and awareness for the organizations he’s involved with.

“For me, it’s coming full circle, going back to the military. I’ve always had that feeling,” he explained. “I think we all get nostalgic about our military days once we leave, and (ask ourselves) ‘Should I have left?’ And for me, it’s really going back and continuing to serve.”

Blake was still scrambling to find the best cycling gear weeks before his departure, but that didn’t dampen his spirits. If all else fails, he will ride the mountain bike he has been training on and report for duty June 4. He knows he will face major physical challenges on the ride, like crossing the largely mountainous terrain of the Continental Divide, but said he is prepared.

“I think the PT test will be fairly easy once I get there,” Blake joked.

Editor’s Note: Track Blake’s progress throughout Operation Return to Duty on Twitter by following @RichBlake1 and @the6thbranch, or visiting www.the6thbranch.org/rtd.

  • Carl LoFaro

    Thank you Rich. You are an inspiration to all Americans who desire to make their communities a better place.

  • Sara Swenson

    Rich, from a fellow veteran, thank you for your continued service to your country and to the Baltimore community!

    Wishing you a safe and enjoyable cross-country bike ride to your new duty station!

  • Herb Holeman

    Our country truly thanks you for your service and dedication.