|Writing names of fallen brothers on my shirt|
This semester I was voted as the Vice President of the Student Veteran's Association. Nervous before to meet other veterans at my school, I put my chin down and went head first into my first meeting. After I overcame my fear to re-associate myself with my former military life, I saw something different. I saw civilians, except I saw a lot of potential in them. These were military trained students that I felt can do anything. So when it came to vote for who would head the organization, I put myself out there for Vice President. I wanted to represent the leaders of tomorrow. Why not President? It was my first meeting and I did not know how things ran so doing so would be a blind man's mistake. I gave the best speech I can on why I should be Vice President. Minutes later, votes were taken and I was voted with a landslide victory. There were 20 members present. It was pretty funny afterwards that my name still ended up as a vote for President.
|Jane customizing a shirt|
Deterred I pondered why in the hell would they not want to do this. I mean, I feel so much for this cause because I lost a lot of friends in Iraq and a lot of friends were severely wounded. It wasn't something I heard that happened to them by word of mouth but I saw it happen. Right in front of my own fucking eyes! I thought this is something the other students saw too. I was wrong. I was basically the only infantry grunt. The rest were technicians fixing radios, submarine personnel, basically bean and battery counters. Pencil pushers, the ones I hated when I was in the Marines. Plus, I was only a small percentage that went to Iraq and actually saw combat. That's why they wouldn't understand what I was talking about or why I was so passionate about what I was seeking to do. It ends here I thought, this would never happen now. My friend Jose spoke to me and he told me about the problems he had with his Student Veteran club in California and how it was hard for him to get them to do things for veterans. He said to me, "Fuck them Z, you don't need them for this." An email had come from Linda the administrator for the QSVA (Queensborough Student Veterans Association) and she was asking if we ever planned to do anything as a club. I can tell she was getting frustrated with the group in that they never did any group events and that planning was horrible. I visited her at her office and told her what I was trying to do and also expressed my frustrations. She said "I'm not surprised". Her experience with the club was that they hardly did anything. She said "Go do whatever you have to do if it involves the club or not, it's your own thing and I support you". I walked out with my spirits even higher and I said to myself, "I'll do this even if I have to do it on my own."
Saturday night, I was still there tossing and turning. I looked like I was break dancing under the covers. Look at where we are now. I had initially told the Wounded Warrior Project I was going to try to recruit about 5 people for the team because that's the amount I thought that would do the biathlon. Boy was I wrong. I underestimated that number. Race day morning there would be 24 of us. It was like pulling out an uninflated balloon to impress a small child. You start blowing it up only to find out you're trying to inflate a blimp. It took my breath away.
One challenge and difficulty I had when I returned from the Marines was trying to fit in. I was cultured in the barracks of Camp Pendleton. All my Marines went off in separate ways, and they were the closest I had been to anyone. I came back to New York, unfortunately life went on without me while I was away. Friends had tales that didn't involve you. No one spoke the way you did, no one experienced or did the same things you did. I saw everything and everyone different. I felt like I stuck out walking the way I did with the haircut I wore and the squint I had from days of desert sun. Friends didn't have time for you like they did before. They had careers or their interests and hobbies were no longer the same as yours. There were friends I thought were best friends that didn't write a single letter to me while I was in Iraq even when I had written them. Things changed, people change, I changed. Now Corporal Zoleta was a jigsaw piece that came in the wrong box and now couldn't fit into any part of the puzzle.
Sunday morning, someone had finally turned that jigsaw piece the right direction and found it was part of the puzzle all along. On that beautiful gloomy rainy morning as I pulled into the parking lot I saw nothing but yellow figures waiting. Team Zombie was assembling, yellow team shirts on, stretching, shaking hands, high fiving and taking bikes of their car racks. No matter what mother nature threw at me that Sunday morning, that morning still would be as beautiful as Easter, as bright as 3 suns. It was the greatest feeling in the world. Not only because there were a lot of us but that none of them were veterans. Some were children of veterans, but only Jason C. and I were the only veterans. You didn't need to be a veteran to believe that the cause we were racing for was just and worth their time and physical pain. Some may have been their just to race, but my mission was that I influenced them and motivated them to race for my team, my symbol for everything right I learned in the Marines. It was my portal to spreading my ethics and everyone jumped on board. That is my feeling of accomplishment.
|Zhiyu and Jeff checking tire pressures|
|Jason (Left) prepping and Adrian (Center) rain jacket in hand|
|Wet ground from rain overnight|
After we set up our transition zones and helped a late Gary and David get registered and set up, we made our way to the starting line. The race was small in number. Approximately 130 competitors in total. My team would be 24 of those competitors and we lined up near the front. The color yellow strung back a long way to the rear as we were 2-3 wide from the front. The starting gun went off and rest would be history to me. The first 300 yards would be downhill from the upper Alley Pond Park parking lot as we made our way to Winchester Blvd. Team Zombie's fastest runners were up ahead in a pack, stride kicking back, arms swinging in sync. Other racers were yelling "Go Team Zombie". I felt good, we were being recognized as being a group with presence. We then cut past the lower parking lot and behind the tennis courts. I smiled at this part of the trail, we had ran this path so many times and I knew we were more than ready to combat the upcoming hill. Zoom went Team Zombie up the hill. Months ago, some of us were walking and out of breath trying to make it over. Like a Zombie now, we were covering ground and going further and further. Left foot, right foot I heard my Team Zombie running with breath calm. Inhalation deep, exhalation effortless. The turn around point came quickly and we were heading back to the starting point. Everyone's pace seemed great. We were now spreading out. A biathlon is an individual effort so everyone found their own pace and went with it. Only a fool would race at a too fast pace and burn themselves out before they even got to hop on their bike. I learned that during training. What we didn't practice was the hill that would lead us back to the upper parking lot. We trudged on, I thought its too late now but we are still more than prepared for this.
|Look how many Zombies there are|
|Transition set up|
|Stretch it out|
|This ones for you guys|
Hopping on to my bike took longer than it should have as I sat with my ass on the ground trying to put my shoes on. I ran out and their was Patty, my cousins wife cheering us on. Wow, it made me feel better as I rode out onto the Cross Island Parkway. The roads were wet but luckily the course was mostly straight with only the turn around points being the only sharp turns. The first quarter of the CIP was downhill and I dropped it onto faster gears as I rode gravity like Sir Isaac Newton. "This is it!" I thought, "Drop the hammer Joe and make up that shitty run time". I pedaled concentrating on being smooth and keeping a nice cadence going with just the right amount of pedal resistance. I flew pass a few cyclists and started seeing Zombie's ahead in their yellow shirts as I was finally catching up. Coming back, a light mist started coming down. It didn't bother me, it was exactly what I needed as I felt more alive and it helped cool my body even more. Coming back we fought the uphill on the hill that we used to fly down in the beginning of bike course. Bud, Zhiyu, Dave, Kevin, Eddy and Han were far ahead and looking great on the bike. Bud was still smiling and Zhiyu had a face he was putting out max effort. Coming back on the second leg of the bike, it hit me. I was starting to feel a cramp on my right calf. During training, a cramp would usually come during my second run but never this early. "Oh shit" I thought. I had been pushing it hard and would I survive the run now. Coming into the transition zone. I got my shoes on without a problem and I was out of there.
|Sam trying to look amused|
|Team Zombie is focused|
|We're smiling now, wait till later|
300 yards out the transition zone, that cramped locked my foot outwards. Adrian was right behind me and asked if he needed me. I waved him on as I pulled out to the side to stretch and then began running backwards. Leeanna had taught me that during training as I cramping and it was working. Still running, I began passing those that decided it would be easier to walk. Easier but not faster. Bud passed me going the other direction towards the finish line and yelled "Joe!". I was thinking "How the hell is he still smiling?" Zhiyu followed and gave me a high five followed by Dave with another high five. Team Zombie's fastest were now finishing. I just trekked on. I made it over the hills with no problems but now I was developing a cramp on my left quadricep. The finish line was coming too soon to worry about it so I pushed on. The sound of cheers started echoing down the hill as I made the turn to the upper parking lot. There they were. Team Zombie in yellow at the finish line cheering to finish strong. No one else but Team Zombie there. Such good sportsmanship and team unity. I threw a fist in the air in victory as I crossed the finish line. I then joined them as we cheered others crossing the finish line, Zombie or not. A competitor said to us "I give you guys props for all being at the finish line cheering everybody else on." Yes, cause we compete with honor. We waited till the last one came in.
We were a happy bunch. Joking and laughing despite the exhaustion. The team would win 2 awards. Leeanna won first place in her age group for Females 30-34 years old and my wife Jane won third place for her age group for Females. Congratulations to them both. They had no idea they would win an award and the look of surprise on their face was priceless.
After wards, it was off to my house for the post race barbecue. Food and booze awaited us as we took today to be one hell of an accomplishment. I had marinated some ribs and wings the day before. Dave picked up a keg of Blue Moon for us and we put it on ice Saturday. My team deserved to relax and more. They had shown commitment, great spirit, and a lot of heart. People have said to me that I make a great leader especially to what this team has done. I don't believe it one bit, I had to say little and explain little, Team Zombie just took it out of my hands and ran with it. Sunday was one of the best days of my life. Thank you to each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart. Semper Fidelis and Oorah Zombies!
To view full race results follow this link: Queens biathlon Results
|Adrian finishing strong|
|Me flying in|
|Jane sprinting in|
|Sam making it look easy|
|Jason strong finish|
|Cynthia finishing strong|
|Marilyna crossing the finish line|
|Vincent's victory pose|
|Dave barreling through the finish line|
|Maria still got some energy left|
|Eddie's war face|
|Sabina strolling through|
|Team Zombie cheering|
|Team Zombie at the finish line|
|They will never fade|