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Veteran rides wheelchair 422 miles to raise awareness of suicides

Josh Geartz had been slated to leave Iraq that September day in 2003 when the explosive hit.

It blew his Humvee on its side, and after he helped his gunner, he crawled out the driver's seat to find the winch.

Then he passed out.

Eleven years later, Geartz would pass out again after downing a bottle's worth of pills. Years of battling blood clots, spinal and brain injuries, PTSD and partial paralysis in his legs — all from the blast — had left the North Tonawanda Army sergeant feeling like a burden on his family.

But Sunday, he was chatty and candid, enjoying himself at the Sportsmen's Tavern on Amherst Street, seated in the wheelchair he rode into the city while escorted by police.

Geartz had just finished a four-week, 422-mile trek from Angola, Ind., going for 20-mile spurts and switching between two electric wheelchairs to arrive at the tavern. He was raising money for two veterans groups: Team Red, White & Blue, a veteran community group, and SongwritingWith: Soldiers, a nonprofit that hosts retreats to pair soldiers with songwriters who help translate their stories into music.

In October 2015, Geartz co-wrote the song "Still on the Ride" with Nashville folk artist Mary Gauthier while on an SWS retreat in Albany. He and Gauthier were set to play their song during the singer's Sportsmen's show Sunday night.

Geartz raised just over $16,000 through online donations as of Sunday afternoon, and he hopes to raise $34,000 more to bring a veterans' retreat here.

He believes that respite helped save his life.

"Just one different perspective," he said.

That's all it took to change his outlook.

"It's not horrible. It's not what's wrong with you. It's what happened to you," he said.

As Gauthier put it: "What we found is the humanity in it, and somehow that made it possible for Josh to see he wasn't alone."

Geartz, who turned 37 during his trip, served as a military police officer in the Army from 1999 to 2004. He served in Kosovo and Iraq.

His wife, Lisa, found the songwriter's retreat for him. They have two sons, Nash, 6, and Silas, 1.

When he returned from Iraq, everything slowed down. It left him a lot of time to think, and questions began to creep up as he sat at home. Among them: Why me?

"I think that's how I wrote the song," he said.

"Still on the Ride" centers around the idea that dead soldiers become guardian angels. It wrestles with survivor's guilt.

"I shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t be gone / But it’s not up to me who dies and who carries on / I sit in my room, I close my eyes / Me and my guardian angel, we’re still on the ride," goes its chorus.

The online version of the song features just Gauthier singing. But during a sound check Sunday, as Gauthier sang and strummed on an acoustic guitar, Geartz began accompanying her on his harmonica. His eyes fixed ahead and the little silver box at his lips, he hummed a mournful, twangy melody.

Earlier, Gauthier had said that only so much of an experience can be conveyed through words.

"But if I play it for you, you might feel it," she said.

Geartz's ride was part of his 422For22 fundraising campaign. The 422 refers to the number of miles he traveled from an American Legion in Indiana, where one of his wheelchairs was made. The 22 refers to about how many veterans commit suicide daily.

His favorite moments from the farm- and field-filled journey – which he took with a friend and fellow vet Roger Straide, who drove alongside him – were when passersby stopped him and he could explain his cause. Most people didn't know the frequency of suicide among veterans, he said.

His own unsuccessful suicide attempt was done on impulse.

"In the military, you're trained to react," he said. "If you're feeling something, you do something about it."

But in the civilian world, he said, "you have to respond, not react."

This ride for this cause was his response.

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