MILWAUKEE — They come from donors, dumpsters and Craigslist, and they're helping veterans get back on their feet.
For veterans undergoing drug and alcohol rehabilitation who have lost their driver's licenses, bicycles can be much more than a mode of transportation.
They can be a lifeline.
Rick Cherone, a Vietnam veteran from New Berlin, Wis., began picking up bicycles he saw in garbage bins, repairing them and dropping them off at Milwaukee's VA hospital. Then two peer counselors at the VA opened a small bicycle repair shop where four veterans are learning bike repair skills.
Cherone, 67, a combat medic who earned two Purple Hearts, was treated for post-traumatic stress at the VA. He met other veterans there going through programs and "they'd try to get them jobs, but guys would say, 'I don't have a license.' "
"I made a promise to the Lord, in a foxhole, that if I survived Vietnam I'd help veterans," Cherone said in a recent interview in his garage where numerous bikes in various states of repair littered the floor.
He's repaired around two dozen bicycles in the last year, all donated to the Zablocki Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Administration Medical Center, where they're given to veterans.
Douglas Kiger and Rich Russell, Iraq veterans and peer support apprentices at the VA, recently began collecting old, beat-up bicycles and donated tools for four veterans in their Wednesday support group. Any veteran in their group who wants to learn repair skills and work on a bicycle can keep it.
As the bicycle repair project develops, Kiger and Russell hope to get more veterans at the VA involved "so they can have ownership in the program, something to be proud of," Kiger said.
None knows anything about bicycle repair. They're learning by doing and by watching YouTube videos — next week they plan to watch a video on repairing gears. They also toured the repair shop at Allis Bike in West Allis and got some advice from owner Jim Morateck, who offered to donate a bike stand.
Jan Masalewicz, one of the four veterans participating in the bicycle repair program, knelt next to a Schwinn 24-speed bicycle this week and patiently cleaned the filthy rear derailleur. Surrounded by touring bikes, mountain bikes and even a child's two-wheeler, Masalewicz said he'd never worked on bicycles before volunteering.
"We're starting from the ground floor, getting the shop organized," said Masalewicz, a Marine who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968.
Since starting several weeks ago, Kiger and Russell have procured 27 bicycles through donations, Craigslist and trash heaps.
The tiny bicycle repair shop is at one end of a garage on the VA grounds that houses two salt trucks. Overhead lights will be installed soon as well as hooks on the walls so veterans don't have to kneel and crouch next to bicycles. On a red workbench are boxes filled with seats, sprockets, brakes and cables, reflectors and handlebar grips.
On their wish list: specialized bicycle repair tools and a bike stand.
"I'm used to working with a couple of wrenches and a pliers, but these are really specialized," said Masalewicz, 66, of Waukesha, holding up a chain remover. "Who knows? It might turn into a full-time hobby or a part-time job for me."
Cherone operates his ad hoc bicycle repair shop out of his garage, where he sometimes cannibalizes parts from really busted-up bikes to use on ones not so far gone. He uses his own crescent wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, hammers and socket wrenches.
He picked up a large box of donated water bottles and is trying to get bicycle helmet donations so veterans who get a fixed-up donated bike won't have to purchase a helmet.
"Every veteran is happy to get one. It's designed to help guys get around and get to jobs," Cherone said. "It's therapy for me, too."