Jim Carney

Rich Blake had just finished an all-night bike ride of 120 miles, winding up in Fargo, N.D.

Blake, a Barberton native and Iraq war veteran, has been putting a lot of miles on his mountain bike lately — with many days taking a toll physically as he tries to reach his goal: the Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., by June 4, when he is to report to duty.

He left Baltimore for the cross-country ride April 30.

“I called it a day at 12 noon,” Blake said in a phone interview May 17 from Fargo.

With the wind so strong the previous day, Blake took a daytime break from riding and left at 2 a.m. across an abandoned railroad trail in Minnesota.

“The wind was so bad in Minnesota, I was running in place in a 35 mph wind,” he said.

Blake, who turned 33 during his ride (May 20), served in the Marines and took part in the initial invasion of Iraq and battles at the beginning of the war. He left the service in 2003 after a four-year enlistment.

He enrolled at Stark State College for two semesters, then moved to Florida to work with the Department of Homeland Security. He enrolled at Florida Atlantic University, receiving his undergraduate degree in psychology in 2008.

Community service

That year, he began a doctoral program in psychology at Loyola University in Baltimore, then decided to get back into the service.

He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army and will complete the final year of his doctoral program in Washington. He will be commissioned as a captain when he reports for duty.

As a civilian in Baltimore, Blake was a director and chairman of the board of a nonprofit organization he and some friends started, the 6th Branch. The group uses leadership and organizational skills of military veterans to undertake community service.

He also is involved with Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness, a nonprofit that helps wounded warriors, active-duty and reserve military, other veterans, first responders and their families.

His cross-country trek, called Operation Return to Duty, aims to raise $25,000 to be split between the two nonprofit organizations.

Money raised for the 6th Branch will help Operation Oliver, an effort to revitalize a neighborhood in Baltimore.

Jeremy Johnson, public relations director for the 6th Branch, said Blake is among an increasing number of vets who are starting and working with a variety of nonprofits as they reintegrate into society after military service.

“Vets are increasingly creating nonprofits and getting involved in community service as a healing process,” said Johnson, a 10-year active-duty Navy veteran who serves in the Navy Reserve and lives in Baltimore. “Rich is an example of what the veteran mentality is in a post-war environment.”

Blake spent the night in Norton visiting friends May 3 as part of his bike trip. He said he takes mostly state routes and carries all of his gear on his bike: a one-man tent, clothes, water and other supplies.

“The Rockies will be the toughest part of the trip,” he said, but traveling through the Appalachian Mountains at the beginning of the ride was hard as well.

In updates on YouTube, he admitted to struggling with the weather — including snow — and fatigue as he crossed mountainous Montana in the past few days. He said he will be cutting it close to make it to Tacoma by June 4.

Blake said his experience with the Marines in Iraq has helped him as he travels solo across America. “It is not a big deal for me to get stuck somewhere and fend for myself,” he said.

Something to contribute

Blake, whose mother, Brenda, now lives in Pittsburgh, said he decided to pursue a career as a clinical psychologist and serve in the Army as an officer because he felt he had something to contribute.

“I thought having been there in combat and having had that experience and knowing what it is like to transition to civilian life, I would have tremendous amount of insight,” he said.

Blake said the transition from “jumping out of helicopters firing rockets all day” to civilian life was hard, and he looks forward to working with soldiers on active duty.

“I might try to get on a combat stress team,” he said.

So far, about $12,000 has been raised — nearly half his goal.

For information or to donate, go to http://operation?returntoduty.kintera.org/?richblake.

To see Blake in a recent video, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ejwK7vRyB8.

To follow him on Facebook, go to www.facebook.com/#!/the6thbranch. His email is Richblake@the6thbranch.org.

Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at jcarney@thebeaconjournal.com.