A Lafayette County sheriff’s deputy bicycled from Milwaukee to Dubuque last week to honor two Southwest Wisconsin veterans who died in Afghanistan.
Michael Gorham, who is also a Cuba City EMT, is one of the three founders of Team Lafayette, which has been participating in extreme sports in memory of Army Sgt. Jakob Roelli of Darlington, who died in Afghanistan Sept. 21, 2011, and Staff Sgt. Jesse Grindey of Hazel Green, who died in Afghanistan March 12, 2012.
Roelli was the partner of Gorham’s nephew, Reg Gill, who now is the Lafayette County sheriff.
“Jesse was a kid who hung around the Hazel Green Police Department,” said Gorham. “It is a ‘Mayberry’ community. I am told I was a patriarchal figure to Jesse. I don’t like to think about that much, because I would have traded places with him in an instant.
“Jesse left behind a wife and two kids. I can’t fix that and it bothers me a lot. Jakob left behind a fiancée as well. Both were good if not great people. They were two young men that the world may have discounted as kids from small town America. But now they are real heroes, and I don’t want people to forget because of the loss to their respective families.”
Gorham left Milwaukee on a Raleigh Cadent bicycle Aug. 2 around sunrise, getting to Cottage Grove the first night. Gorham got to Mineral Point Aug. 3, and then finished his ride Aug. 4. He was accompanied by a one-person support team, Laura Schauer, whose son served in Iraq and son-in-law served in Afghanistan.
“On day one when the wind was blowing hard and I was biking as fast as some people run, it was frustrating,” said Gorham. “I knew they were people back home watching on Facebook. I could not let them down. For the benefit of what Jakob and Jesse stood for, I felt failing was not an option. I wanted to demonstrate on behalf of Jakob and Jesse that there was hope in the day-to-day struggles of modern life whether they are fighting addiction, cancer, disease, or other physical ailments. You have to stay committed to winning the fight, even when you are at your breaking point.”
Gorham and brothers James and Dean Johnson have participated in Tough Mudder, the 10- to 12-mile endurance obstacle course; the Galena Triathlon; and 5K runs. Gorham biked 120 miles to Madison one year ago, but topped that with a 193-mile ride from Veterans Park in Milwaukee to Veterans Park in Dubuque.
“We have a responsibility to them and their families not to forget their sacrifices,” said James Johnson.
Gorham was accompanied in Veterans Park in Dubuque by two other veterans, Anthony Anderson and Tom Voss of Veteran’s Trek. Anderson and Voss are walking to Los Angeles to raise awareness of suicide and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among veterans.
Gorham’s physical activity is more remarkable given that he was born with cerebral palsy, which he called “mildly invasive.”
“My father once stated I was going to have to work hard to be “average,” he said. “Since I was a child I was told what I was going to be able to accomplish. I am 51 years old now. The only thing I care about is making the world a better place.”
Gorham served in the Army in the early 1980s, and said his noncommissioned officers “were Vietnam veterans and they were shunned by some.”
He served three years until what he calls his “‘factory defect’ thing finally caught up to me. I recall reading stories of young men committing suicide in World War II because the failed their physical. I understand the depth of that depression. I was at a point of leading a scout platoon and a year later, I am out of college [and] the Army and homeless.”
Gorham moved to Wisconsin, and was hired as a Hazel Green police officer. He later became a firefighter and an EMT before becoming a Lafayette County deputy.
Gorham started by raising money for the Navy SEAL Foundation by raising $1,000 for every 1,000 miles he rode, biked and swam in 2010, one year before Roelli’s death.
In 2013 Team Lafayette raised money for the Lafayette County veterans’ memorial. One year later, Team Lafayette raised money for first aid kits to treat gunshot wounds for law enforcement officers in Lafayette, Green and Jo Daviess counties.
Earlier this year, Team Lafayette raised money for the widow of Craig Runde, a nurse and Cuba City EMT who died in March, by selling T-shirts. Grindey was a volunteer firefighter and EMT, and Roelli’s family and friends were Darlington firefighters and served in law enforcement.
On last week’s trip, Gorham got what he described as “unexpected support from a gentleman who went out of his way to show me directions,” as well as donated ice, water and a Monster energy drink in Dousman.
The Johnsons are moving on to the Spartan Race this month, while Gorham will tackle his third Tough Mudder run in September.
“At a certain point, when you are looking at 50 years old you looking to leave your legacy behind,” said Gorham. “My legacy is that I know two of the approximately 100 Wisconsin soldiers who died fighting really bad people that are bullies. I have an obligation to be their voice of remembrance. I want the folks who I come into contact with to have hope and support in their daily struggles. The only way you can do that is by giving them an example. I am hoping that by showing an average everyday person — or as I call myself, a broken toy — can find a way then they can find way to pursue their dreams.”