Injured vet can't walk . . . but he can ride

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Beverly Lane Lorenz

INDIAN LAND – American hero Jonathan Alan Roberts returned home from the War on Terror in August 2005. But for Roberts, the real battle of his life had just begun, one he continues to fight every day of his life.  

Roberts, who joined the U.S. Army in summer 2002 as a Special Forces candidate, was deployed to Iraq with the 18th Airborne Corps following school and training at Forts Benning and Bragg.

Roberts was just 22 years old when an 18-wheeler smashed into the Ford Explorer he was driving back to Camp Victory from the Baghdad Airport on Aug. 17, 2005.  

“The driver of the semi was from somewhere that drives on the left. I swerved right, the proper way; he swerved left, the wrong way, and we had a big head-on collision,” Roberts said.   

Because of his defensive driving training before deployment, two of Roberts’ three passengers walked away from the wreck. He took the major hit as his training had taught him to do.

“The passenger in the seat behind me was in the hospital for a little while, but he walked away from there,” Roberts said.

But Roberts’ injuries are so significant he has difficulty remembering without help, let alone walking.

“I am told that my worst injury is a traumatic brain injury. I’m also told there was a time when I didn’t even remember joining the Army or going to Iraq,” Roberts said. “Pictures have probably helped my memory the most, because I can think ‘That looks like somewhere I know I have been’ and ‘I recognize that guy.’”

Although his memory is returning little by little, Roberts said he still doesn’t remember the crash at all or its immediate aftermath.

“I flew to Germany first, I’m told, but I didn’t even get off the airplane,” he said. “Eventually, I made it to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.”  

This is where he began his long journey home. He’s home now, living near family in Waxhaw, but he has not fully recovered.

Roberts cannot walk, but he can ride a tricycle.

On Saturday, March 16, Roberts led 200 cyclists in The B.I.G. Ride’s No Brainer Ride for Brain Injury Awareness. The group left Waxhaw touring the countryside toward Lancaster on 71- and 28-mile routes.

“My injured brain doesn’t know how to control my legs,” Roberts said. “My left leg is a lot weaker than my right, partly because there is a big metal rod in that thigh. It was the side closest to the door (that got hit).”

It is also difficult for Roberts to speak.

“My brain injury makes it very hard for my mouth to make audible words. The V.A. gave me a little battery-powered keyboard that says the letters as I type them. If I push the enter key, it will say all of the words on the display,” Roberts explained.  

“My dad (Steve Roberts) is a very good airplane mechanic so he can do really cool stuff with metal. He made a clip table that he riveted onto my trike’s handlebars, so I have my voice right in front of me,” Roberts pointed out.
Roberts was born and grew up in Manila, Philippines, where his parents were missionaries with New Tribes Mission.  

“I joined the Aritao Bike Club and fell in love with riding up the mountain behind town every weekday morning,” he said.

His love of cycling is one thing the accident did not take from him.

“I think I got my first trike a year ago and started riding with Jen Davis, a JAARS kid who grew up in Suriname and Cameroon.  We met at Bible study, which meets in my basement,” Roberts said.

Through Waxhaw Bible Church, Roberts met cyclist Ben Barry, who had recently moved to the area. Roberts’ grandmother, Polly Dalby, invited Barry to lunch at her daughter’s house after church one Sunday. Her daughter is Roberts’ mother.  

“I was so very excited when Ben showed me www.thebigride.org. It is a record of all his super-long, super-cool rides,” Roberts said.

The website reignited his interest in cycling.

“Now that I can’t walk, I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding with just two wheels, so my dad found me a trike with 21 gears. I call it my mountain trike.” he said.

With his faster mountain trike, Barry brought Roberts to Sun City Carolina Lakes to ride with Tim Cline, president of the SCCL Cyclists Club.

The trio also rides with the Bee Team from Waxhaw.  

“I owe a lot to Ben and Tim,” Roberts said.

“Anytime the weather is nice (above 40 and not raining), Jon and Ben and I ride on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday afternoons,” Cline said.

They meet in the lot just behind Wendy’s at Carolina Commons and welcome all riders. Other cyclists often ride with them.

Roberts’ grandparents gave him one of three plots of land they bought in 1979 when they moved to Waxhaw from Nebraska to work at JAARS.

“The house I am now living in was built by Homes For Our Troops and the Union County Homebuilders Association. It is great having such a nice house that was built especially for a guy who is stuck in a wheelchair – me,” Roberts said.  

“It is hard for me to see much in this guy,” Roberts said of himself. “But my Heavenly Father kept me alive through all of this, so I guess he does have a plan for everyone, even this guy in a wheelchair.”