For Jimmy Thomas, a Ballston Spa native who recently completed a 3,500 mile bike ride across the country, the physical feat mattered far less than the reason he got on the bike in the first place: to raise money for Woofs For Warriors, an organization that matches service dogs with veterans, like him.
Thomas, 58, biked from Oregon to New York, raising about $26,000 for the organization, which rescues dogs and pairs them with veterans suffering from either post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries who can benefit from their companionship. Its main objective is to train rescued dogs to become service animals for these veterans.
Thomas himself is a recipient of a service dog through the organization, a Golden Retriever named Boots. Thomas and Boots trained for six weeks to get Boots prepared for his role as a service dog.
"They keep you alive," Thomas said of the service dogs. "They keep you alive and keep you and your family together."
Thomas, who served in the United States Army from 1979 to 1983, said the bike ride took two and a half months, noting that he did little, if any, training ahead of time. At the start of his ride, he was averaging 41 miles a day.
By the end, he was biking over 90 miles a day.
While on his journey up and down hills across the country, Thomas stayed in camps and hotels. However, he largely relied on the generosity of strangers he ran into to help him along the way. When they learned of his effort to raise money for Woofs For Warriors, he said, many people bought him meals, provided him with energy drinks and water on hot days, or simply helped him navigate his route through busy areas. Hotels left granola bars on pillows and sometimes waiters in restaurants would hand him extra money as he left due to all of the customers who wanted to pay for his meal.
"The people I met were just amazing," he said. "I knew I looked like the cat had just dragged me in."
Most rewarding for Thomas though is the fact that he has far exceeded his original goal, which was to raise at least awareness about the organization. Donations continue to come in, even though his ride has ended. He's already planning an extended kayaking trip from Cobleskill to the Chesapeake Bay to raise funds for the organization again next year.
For Thomas, Boots was life-changing. Often, Thomas said, veterans are plagued by injuries that are not necessarily physical nor easily identified by other people. Veterans, he added, in general don't talk to each other nor family members about their struggles.
"People don't talk about it so no one knows. Sometimes people miss something because they can't actually see anything. But the dogs help each person how any other thing would," he said.
For veterans who struggle to just make it through their days with the issues and trauma that they carry with them, the dogs not only serve as an affordable alternative to pharmaceutical medicine or other treatment, but can easily be the difference between their life and death as well.
"Each service person has something different that they need. I just know what it does for me. Each veteran has their own special needs and the dogs can help, even if it's just to make them happy throughout the day," he said.
Thomas admitted that he did enjoy the bike ride. Yet, he said the thanks should be given not to him, but to Woofs For Warriors and to every person who decided to donate.
"I physically rode the bike, but without everyone's generosity and donations, it would have been meaningless," he said. "If people didn't recognize the need to donate, it wouldn't have served the need that I was looking for."