When Omaha native Chris Kolenda takes long solo bike rides, he’s not really alone.
The retired Army colonel is with his guys: the six paratroopers who gave their lives in Afghanistan in 2007 while serving under his command.
Pfc. Chris Pfeifer. Sgt. Adrian Hike. Spc. Jacob Lowell. Staff Sgt. Ryan Fritsche. Capt. David Boris. Maj. Tom Bostick.
Their names are right there, etched on the top crossbar of his Specialized Aethos road bike.
“So I can see them,” Kolenda explained. “Whenever I need a bit of motivation, all I need to do is look down.”
Kolenda is going to be spending a lot of time with his guys over the next month. On Sunday morning, he’ll embark on a 1,700-mile, 28-day bicycle trek he is calling the Fallen Hero Honor Ride, to visit the grave sites of all six soldiers.
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During his ride, Kolenda will be raising money through his Saber Six Foundation for scholarships and other assistance to the families of veterans who served in his former unit, the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment. Several of those who served with him have died by suicide. Others have been plagued by depression and addiction.
“I said, ‘Maybe I can do some good by doing this,’” said Kolenda, 56, who now lives in Milwaukee. “The ride honors the dead, and the foundation supports the living.”
The ride begins in Spalding, Nebraska, Pfeifer’s hometown, early Sunday morning, 15 years to the day after the soldier died. At 2 p.m. Saturday, Kolenda will join Pfeifer’s friends and family — his parents, Mike and Darlina Pfeifer; his widow, Karen, and daughter, Peyton, who was born two days after her father’s death — for a service celebrating his life at his grave site in St. Michael’s Cemetery.
“After a lot of years go by, a lot of times things get brushed to the side,” Karen Pfeifer, who now lives in Houston, said in a phone interview earlier this week. “Bringing this to light again, it shows people still care.”
Chris Pfeifer was remembered as a hardworking kid who played football and drums while growing up in Spalding. He quit school but earned his degree through the Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center in Chadron, where he met Karen.
He joined the Army, and thrived. He was assigned to Kolenda’s 1-91 Cavalry in Schweinfurt, Germany, and deployed with the unit to Afghanistan — to Combat Outpost Keating, later to gain fame in the book and movie “The Outpost.”
Pfeifer and Kolenda bonded over their love of Nebraska football.
“We just made that instant connection,” Kolenda said. “We talked about the Huskers all the time.”
He considered Pfeifer to be a tough, resilient soldier. He called him “Mr. Reliable.”
“Everyone knew when Chris Pfeifer got behind a weapon, it was going to be clean, it was going to work, and it was going to save lives,” Kolenda said.
Pfeifer was shot in a firefight, a bullet striking his upper chest, just missing his body armor. The round struck several organs and caused severe internal bleeding. He was medevaced to a larger base, where Kolenda met him and walked alongside his stretcher to the aid station.
“They let us know they needed donations of Type O blood to save his life,” Kolenda said. “Fifty people lined up to donate. It was enough for Chris to stabilize.”
Three days later, he was flown to Germany, and then to San Antonio, Texas, accompanied by Karen, who was eight months pregnant with their first child. He drifted in and out of consciousness for more than a month. When he was awake, they would talk about the daughter who was about to arrive.
Chris told Karen how much he loved her.
She held his hand as he died. Two days later, she gave birth to their daughter. The two of them built a new life in Texas.
“It’s a fog, in a sense,” Karen Pfeifer said. “I have felt alone, like nobody knew what I’m going through.”
In the past few years, she has re-engaged with some groups that support military and Gold Star families. She is serving on the board of Kolenda’s foundation.
Kolenda grew up in Omaha, and graduated from Creighton Prep in 1983. After high school, he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
He was commissioned as an armor (tank) officer in 1987. He qualified for the elite Army Rangers.
He commanded the 1-91 Cavalry in Afghanistan, and gained a reputation as a pioneer in counterinsurgency for his work with local Afghans and his success in getting insurgent leaders to switch sides.
Top Pentagon leaders tapped him to serve on the staff of the Afghanistan war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Michèle Flournoy, a senior Pentagon policymaker during the Obama administration. He represented Defense Secretary Robert Gates in early peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Kolenda retired from the Army in 2011. He runs a leadership consulting firm and is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank co-founded by Flournoy that is focused on defense and national security issues.
But the memory of the men who died far from home, serving under his command, never left him.
“I wanted to do something significant to recognize their service and sacrifice,” Kolenda said.
He thought about driving to visit their graves. But that didn’t seem particularly challenging. And he considered walking but decided that would take too much time.
Kolenda settled on biking. He calculated the trip at nearly 1,700 miles and figured he could finish it in less than a month.
“The problem is that I didn’t own a bike, and hadn’t ridden a bike in 20 years,” he said.
So he bought a high-quality road bike and hired a coach to get him ready. He established the nonprofit Saber Six Foundation, which references his callsign in Afghanistan as well as the six soldiers it honors. He created a Facebook page to post updates, and a GoFundMe page that as of Friday had collected more than $48,000 toward a goal of $340,000, and promoted the ride on his Twitter feed.
“I started telling people, so I don’t chicken out,” Kolenda joked.
He gathered support from the business and philanthropic groups in Milwaukee and held a 100-mile warmup ride around the city on Memorial Day.
Now the main event is here. Except for a support vehicle, he’ll be pedaling alone, with plenty of time to think about each of his soldiers en route to their graves. The stops are mapped out:
Sept. 27, Carroll, Iowa, at the grave of Adrian Hike, whom Kolenda described as “extraordinary, a combat leader.” He was serving as a gunner for Capt. Dave Boris on Nov. 12, 2007, when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, killing both.
Oct. 2, Elwood, Illinois, at the grave of Jacob Lowell, a “big teddy bear of a guy” but also “a really tough young man,” Kolenda said. He was shot in the leg during a firefight June 2, 2007, but climbed back into the turret of a Humvee to man the .50-caliber machine gun. Then he was shot, fatally, in the chest.
Oct. 6, Hall, Indiana, at the grave of Ryan Fritsche. Kolenda called him “benevolent,” and praised him for carrying out the difficult task of arranging for all of the unit’s soldiers to get through airborne school. He was killed instantly July 27, 2007, while leading his squad up a mountain during the biggest firefight the unit faced during its Afghanistan tour.
Oct. 17, Minersville, Pennsylvania, at the grave of Dave Boris. Kolenda considered him to have “extraordinary” competence and character and said, “He was like a little brother to me.”
Oct. 22, Arlington National Cemetery, at Tom Bostick‘s grave. He and Kolenda were close friends, and Kolenda considered him “the best combat leader I’ve ever met, hands down.” He was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in the same battle as Fritsche.
The ceremonies at each stop will be low-key, but there will be a brunch gala at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C. at the end of the ride.
“I’m one of the few people who can tell the story of them, because I knew all six,” Kolenda said. “It’s important to me to be in a position to help. These guys died doing the things I asked them to do.”
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Bob Wiegand served on a ship convoying war supplies to American service members. He bore the risk of sudden attack by kamikaze aircraft or submarine-launched torpedoes. It was dangerous work.
After earning her master’s — specializing in women’s health — Mary Smith was ready to deploy. She got the call in 2008, when she was sent to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, for five months.
The Rev. Suzanne How, pastor of Immanuel State Line Lutheran Church in Wymore, Nebraska, presided over the September services for Cpl. Daegan Page, a Marine from Omaha who was killed in Afghanistan.
Four years ago, 93-year-old Robert Holts, the last surviving member of the Tuskegee Airmen in Nebraska, was grand marshal of the Defenders of Freedom Veterans Day parade. Holts died in February 2021.
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