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On Veteran's Day, thoughts from a cycling soldier

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on November 11th, 2010 at 9:39 am

Major Joseph Lontai serving and
cycling in Iraq, 2006.

Remember Joseph Lontai? He's the BikePortland reader who, back in April 2006, emailed a photo of himself riding a Spinning bike in the desert while serving in the Iraq war. Since then, I've kept in touch with Major Lontai and I run into him at local bike events.

No longer on active duty, Major Lontai still serves his country, but he also serves his love of cycling and shares that love with the next generation of military leaders.

Major Lontai was on active duty for eight years after graduating from Indiana University (where he was on their Little 500 team). During those eight years, he deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. Since returning home, he's served as an Oregon National Guard officer since 2007. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Military Science at the University of Portland and he's pursuing a Master's degree in teaching.

"When I got back from Iraq in 2007, I felt disoriented for a while. I had planned while in Iraq to ride my bike for days on end across the Trans-American Bike Route, just to appreciate what we have here in the U.S."

In 2007 he crossed the Rockies on a bicycle tour from Portland to St. Louis, Missouri, covering 2,400 miles in 32 days.

In observance of Veteran's Day, I asked Major Lontai to share some thoughts about how his passion for cycling is interwoven with his service to our country and in teaching tomorrow's military leaders. Even though he's busy with Veteran's Day festivities at the University today, he shared the following with me via email:

"Bicycles are central to many things that I'm passionate about: health, outdoors, and responsible (oil-reduced) living. As a veteran, I feel oil-dependency is a national security issue. Americans would be safer if the US energy policy only used US resources in a sustainable manner. I don't want to comment on the current wars we're involved in, but it makes sense that the US shouldn't be intractably dependent for energy, or anything, from other countries. Bicycling is a chance for individuals to take some responsibility towards a safer US energy policy.

Another reason bicycling is important to veterans is that it keeps people healthy. Being a soldier is very physically tough. Nowadays, only a small percentage of young men and women are physically fit enough for military service. A while back, a group of retired generals called this a threat to military readiness. Adult cyclists must fight this rising obesity rate in children. Also, bicycles can keep soldiers healthy. Bikes are a great tool to keep soldiers in shape, and also to rehab for injuries from war.

On a tour of duty to
conquer the Rockies.

[In a follow-up phone interview this morning, Maj. Lontai said he's taken his ROTC cadets on rides from UP to Sauvie Island and he's also had them participate in triathlons with him. He said, "I feel like I've got to tell them about getting on a bike, that it's useful for transportation and a workout, and I also feel a little bit of that is about an important life-skill, which is budgeting both calories and dollars per gallon of gas saved. I've demonstrated that because I bike commute to work I save $4.75 a day in gas, so in the course of a year that's about $5,000."]

Of course, since you're outside when you're on a bicycle, you're appreciating our beautiful country. When I got back from Iraq in 2007, I felt disoriented for a while. I had planned while in Iraq to ride my bike for days on end across the Trans-American Bike Route, just to appreciate what we have here in the U.S. I always feel much more mentally healthy after bicycle trips... and as I made it from Portland to St Louis, the whole time I realized that we should be positive and appreciative as Americans. So... please thank a veteran on Veterans' Day!"

Thank you Joe. We need a lot more people like you serving our country, so it's good to know you are teaching and influencing a whole new generation of leaders.

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Comments
  • Nathan November 11, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Joe, thanks for your service and for bringing the perspectives you expressed above to Jonathan into your teaching. Happy Veterans Day!

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  • SilkySlim November 11, 2010 at 10:14 am

    I wonder if bikes are utilized in any way by the armed services. Just like the tough guys at the Swan Island Shipyards, I bet army men could well utilize bikes to get around our (all too large) military installations.

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  • Robert November 11, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Thank you, Major Lontai.

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  • Brad November 11, 2010 at 11:25 am

    This gives me hope that younger officers understand the perils and implications of oil dependence and will one day soon re-make our foreign and military policies for the better.

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  • Jack November 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    I'm glad I don't have to work over 1,000 days every year.

    Seriously though, glad to hear such sentiment from a veteran. Perhaps he should be recruited by bicycle/pedestrain rights activists to (verbally) combat those who view non-drivers as a bunch of crying hippies.

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  • Dirk Romanov November 11, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Uhhh, how does $4.75 a day add up to $5000 a year??? My abacus shows it to be $1733.75. And WHY is Bike Portland featuring someone who's voluntarily taken direct action in US imperialism and is interested in its continuation (Military Science Professor)? Yeah, he's all pro-bike and that's great, but wouldn't it be better if this blog didn't focus on anyone involved in killing other people so as to "defend the American Way of Life?" and rather continuing to focus on people who are working to change the world through kindness, ingenuity, and advocacy? Getting a bunch of cadets on bikes doesn't count as advocacy. I appreciate BP and read it multiple times per week and urge you, Jonathan to continue that which you do minus articles with a patriotic, maybe even jingoist angle.

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  • Joe November 11, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Thank You Joseph Lontai ! Jack so true..

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  • Jeff Parker November 11, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Yep, god forbid you try to examine the things you have in common Dirk. Let's all keep focusing on the points that make us different so this angry us/them mentality can keep permeating the country.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) November 11, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Dirk,

    Thanks for your comment and for checking the math.

    As for why I'm featuring Major Lontai. This isn't about a political statement or an opinion about military imperialism in America. I don't see the "jingoistic angle" of this story... I see this as an observance of respect for a man who has served our country and continues to serve our country and does so in part by using the tool we all love, the bicycle.

    We need leaders in this country and we need people who understand what to do and how to respond when our safety is threatened either by other countries or by mother nature. Major Lontai seems like a model leader and I'm grateful that he has chosen to serve the way he has.

    And by the way, if anyone replies to Dirk criticizing his view without offering a thoughtful reason for doing so or without being considerate of him, I will delete your comment (I have already deleted two of them). Thanks.

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    • Fawn November 15, 2010 at 10:21 am

      Thanks for this thoughtful response and the article. As someone who does not have any close family members currently serving in the military, I think it is important for me and other folks like me to understand what is like for soldiers serving and coming home. Great article!

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  • A.K. November 11, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Dirk:

    This site features articles such as this because the site has a wide-ranging audience that consists of people who have different world/political views from you (some people actually ride bikes without "no more war" and "one less car" stickers plastered all over them).

    I personally appreciate that Jonathan published this article and found it very interesting.

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  • Rebecca November 11, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    It's great to know that someone in a mentoring role like Major Lontai is advocating for bicycling as a serious solution to some major issues facing our nation. As a teacher, he's in a position to reach a lot of people. Thanks for the voice, and thank you for your service, Major.

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  • Linda November 11, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Jonathan, I think it's your repeated use of the phrase "service to our country" that turns this profile into a political statement. Delete that phrase, and you have a straightforward interesting story about a military guy championing the two wheeled cause.

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  • Quentin November 11, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    "...As a veteran, I feel oil-dependency is a national security issue. Americans would be safer if the US energy policy only used US resources in a sustainable manner."

    Major Lontai seems like a pretty cool guy and he is certainly promoting a good solution to our energy problems. I mean no disrespect, but the implications of his words are obvious and I wish he would come right out and say it: the disastrous invasion of Iraq under false pretenses is a direct result of our current energy policy.

    Promoting bicycles and other oil-conservation methods is an important step in changing our (unsafe and unsustainable) energy policy, but we also must stop pretending that waging war in other countries to gain control of their oil is consistent with "serving our country."

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  • Mork November 11, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Jonathan, thank you for publishing this story.

    Though, I'm sure like many BP readers, I don't agree with current US foreign policy, it is eye opening to hear the story of one responsible individual having a positive impact after returning from active duty.

    I second AK's comment. I hope that BP readers can appreciate the broad range of topics that are published on this awesome site. Just because some of us don't like kids (for example) doesn't mean BP shouldn't be publishing great stories about biking with young ones.

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  • patrickz November 11, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Major Lontai appears to be an intelligent, articulate man who may have the same conflicting thoughts most of us share about honoring those in combat zones and at the same time wish some things could be solved without wars. Thanks Jonathan.

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  • matt picio November 11, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    I'm going to stick my neck in here against my better judgement. There are a lot of folks actively serving in the US military voluntarily who do not agree with our government's policied. Many of them signed up with no concept of imperialism. Once they signed, they are bound by a legal contract - one for which they can be imprisoned if they break it. Some of you might say "well, they should object, and go to jail if they have to" - well, that's fine and good for those who are single, without dependents, and opposed to the war, or imperialism, but not so good for the 18-year old who just wants to get out and go to college, or the 25-yo lieutenant with a wife and 2 kids to support.

    Aside from that, US policy is made at the political level, not by anyone in the military with a rank below Colonel (or Captain in the US Navy). Today is Veterans' Day, and regardless of how you personally feel about American Imperialism (hey, I'm against it too), the US oil addiction or America's obsession with the automobile, realize that the veterans we honor today chose to render service to their country - with the best of intentions in mind, regardless of where our government sent them. While the US Military can be used to kill, oppress, and destroy, it has also been used to build, liberate, and save. While the institution may be abhorrent to many of you, the individuals who comprise it have done much which is worthy of respect and honor.

    Cut Major Lontai and Jonathan a little slack today - if not out of respect for them, then out of respect for the millions who served in WWII and other wars which may still be worthy of your personal respect.

    Major - thanks for your service, and for inspiring others to bike. Bravo Zulu, sir.

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  • PomPilot November 11, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Major Lontai, if you catch up with me during reunion weekend (UP class of '82 here), I owe you a beverage. BTW, I usually leave campus on the Saturday morning of reunion weekend for a leisurely bike ride. Maybe we can hook up with a few other, like-minded alumni for some riding.

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  • Ron November 11, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    I would like to respond to Dirk. I'm a former army officer and dedicted 10 years of my life serving and while I agree that our foreign policy has been disastrous (for about a century actually) and Iraq may be the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of this country, you need to separate the individuals following orders from the policy makers and generals. Maj. Lontai did not choose to invade Iraq. I don't know his personal motivations for serving but I would guess that if you took the time to ask him you might be pleasantly surprised or even enlightened by the answers. From his comments regarding our dependency on fossil fuels it is obvious to this reader that he is passing on an appropriate and sane worldview to his students. Happy Veterans Day Maj. Lontai.

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  • Jim Lee November 11, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    Fuel is only 1/4 the cost of operating a car, so the major easily is saving $5,000 per annum.

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  • spare_wheel November 11, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Dirk, Thank you very much for posting your comment. You are not the only one who felt that this post crossed a line.

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  • Becky November 11, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    SilkySlim,

    "I wonder if bikes are utilized in any way by the armed services."

    This page about a video includes a little info about one Army experiment with bicycles.

    http://cyclingexperiences.com/2008/12/28/the-bicycle-corps-americas-black-army-on-wheels/

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  • Mike Fish November 12, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Thanks Major.

    I don't think this post crossed a line at all - this blog is about bicycling, not politics. Anyone of any political affiliation or foreign policy opinion can be a successful bicycle advocate, and it looks like the Major is a good example and doing good things for cycling. So thanks again Major.

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  • Dirk Romanov November 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    "kill, oppress, and destroy... build, liberate, and save" All depends on the perspective, just ask an Iraqi. I assure y'all I don't care about politics, but the use of the phrase "serve our country" when pertaining to murdering other humans doesn't resonate with me and I find it strange that it's being used on this blog. How about serving our country through getting medical care and fresh produce to the poor, working to overhaul the education system, or getting TV-watching suburbanites onto bikes (might need an M-16 for that one)?

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  • Roland November 12, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    I really wish people wouldn't refer to BikePortland as BP, since I hate BP (British Petroleum).

    Anyway, it's true, "served our country" is one of those vague phrases that bears closer examination. Arguably, doing a tour of duty in an unjust or pointless war, or one that prolongs our oil addiction, is of no real service to the country. And when we say "our country," are we talking about the whole populace, or only a certain economic class?

    Nonetheless, Maj. Lontai DID undeniably perform a service. And his employer was our country. Or at least its government, which is the closest thing we have to an organization that represents our collective will. Don't get me started.

    So we can try to be more accurate, and dance around saying he "performed a service for what's left of the so-called government that supposedly represents our country, whatever that means" or we can just say he "served our country" and get on with life.

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  • Jonathan November 12, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    I too am a soldier and a cyclist, and I spent many happy hours during my deployment riding my single-speed around the back of the airfield at my base.

    I understand that some people don't immediately understand the idea of "service to his country," and recoil at the idea of service in an unjust war as being service to one's country.

    The way I look at it is that being a Soldier is a long-term commitment. Nobody knows on the day of enlistment what the future will bring. The oath of enlistment says it all; you pledge to support and defend the Constitution and to follow the orders given by the officers all the way up the chain of command.

    There is only one military; there is not a "good" military and a "bad" military. The President, who is elected by the people, gives the orders, and Congress, also elected by the people, pays the bills. As a citizen, each of us has the option to disagree with policies of the President and Congress; as Soldiers, we don't disagree but instead carry out our orders.

    Military service is not for everyone, but it's a special opportunity that I'm honored to have had. I served my country as a Soldier and I'm proud of it. I don't think that diminishes other people's pride in the service that they render to the country; I hope it does not. And in reference to commenters like Dirk, who identify the armed forces with U.S. imperialism, I would urge them to read over the oath of enlistment and think about what that means today and what it's meant in the past. Thank you.

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  • Ely November 12, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Here's why "serving his/her country" is an appropriate description of a soldier's work:

    We have an all-volunteer military. If not for the willingness of every soldier to step up and do that job, we would have a draft. Soldiers "serve" by putting themselves in harm's way so my loved ones and I - and many of YOU - don't have to.

    If that ain't service - honorable and worthy of thanks - I don't know what is.

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  • Ely November 12, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    and - thanks for a great story! Best to you, Maj. Lontai, in your endeavors. :)

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  • Red Five November 12, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    Those who diss this guy...honestly what do YOU do to help make things better.. please...name it.

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  • resopmok November 13, 2010 at 9:30 am

    Dirk Romanov
    "How about serving our country through getting medical care and fresh produce to the poor, working to overhaul the education system, or getting TV-watching suburbanites onto bikes (might need an M-16 for that one)?

    I suppose these are all four things that you make a part of your daily life, since you feel so strongly about them? We certainly could use more people doing those things, but they don't pay a living wage, provide healthcare for you and your family and pay for a college education. For every finger you point, there's two pointing back at you so please practice what you are preaching before you mount the pulpit.

    I too wish our country didn't need a military, and I also agree that our leaders use it inappropriately. I can even point the finger at myself here because I did vote for Obama, though I thought he was going to end the war in Afghanistan and not build it up. That's a different subject, but let's try to show some respect for people willing to put their life on the line to protect our country (which ostensibly, is what the military _is_ for) instead of shunning bloggers for posting an article about a veteran on Veteran's Day. By your logic, George Washington should've campaigned for better national dental hygiene instead of fighting the British over that insignificant piece of paper we call the "Declaration of Independence."

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  • spare_wheel November 13, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    "Those who diss this guy"

    I in no way intend to diss the Mr. Lontai. I have religious objections to militarism and also feel that the US military have shown a repeated disregard for international law and human rights. These issues are far more important to me than the economic prosperity or geopolitical stature of the USA. Thus, I strongly disagree with Jonathan's editorial statement at the end of this article. I'm not going to respond further.

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  • Alex Reed November 14, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    The commenters questioning Jonathan's use of "serve" do have a point—why are veterans always have performed an act of "service," while, say, EPA employees generally are not? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people in the military are putting their lives, bodies, and minds on the line. Given the danger of their jobs, most military personnel are not paid nearly enough to make joining a rational economic choice. So, the decision to join the military almost always involves some form of altruism or idealism. On the other hand, compensation in other federal agencies is generally sufficient to make joining them a rational economic decision for some people. That's why I think Jonathan is justified in saying Maj. Lontai served his country.

    I think we could use the word "service" more often for people like teaching assistants, nurse's aides, social services employees and the like who do hard work for the good of society without being compensated well. These kinds of non-traditionally-masculine service seem to me to often be underappreciated. A woman who wipes sick people's bottoms eight hours a day for $12 an hour is also serving, if in a different way.

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  • Jonathan November 15, 2010 at 7:20 am

    Alex,

    "why are veterans always have performed an act of 'service,' while, say, EPA employees generally are not?"

    EPA employees and teaching assistants can quit their jobs whenever they want. Soldiers must do what they're told or face legal consequences.

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  • Alex Reed November 15, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Jonathan,

    Also a very good point.

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  • Alex Reed November 15, 2010 at 11:13 am

    I feel compelled to clarify that I don't think teaching assistants' and nursing assistants' service is equal to soldiers'. The second paragraph of my previous comment was basically a non sequitur - saying "While we're on the topic of service, I think these other folks are underappreciated." If I were to write it again, I think I wouldn't have included that paragraph, because it's off-topic and confusing.

    Thanks, Jonathan, for running this interesting and honorable story, and thank you, Maj. Lontai, for admirable service to your country.

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