GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFNS) — His mind goes blank. All that exists is the terrain around him and the two wheels spinning below him — that is, until his body stops sweating completely.
“It caught me so off guard; I got nauseated and wanted to vomit,” said Staff Sgt. Kyle Emmel, a cyclist from Bismarck, North Dakota. “I realized, ‘Oh God, I’m at dehydration … I’m one step from a heat stroke right now.’”
Emmel, now a 17th Training Group student, was almost halfway through an 80-mile gravel race when he realized he had missed each of the posted water stops. Desperate for fluids, he pulled over to a local ranch.
“I found a farm yard with a couple of guys drinking beer at their barn and I pulled in and asked them for water,” he recalled.
The thirst-quenched cyclist then mounted his bike and peddled to the end of the race.
Emmel wasn’t always an avid cyclist.
It was October 2006 when Emmel became a Soldier for the North Dakota National Guard and trained in stinger-missile air defense. In February 2008, he volunteered for a deployment to Afghanistan where he monitored the surrounding area from a tower with an infrared sensor.
“The people we were looking for were bad people,” Emmel explained. “They’re bad for the U.S. and they’re bad for Afghanistan. I wanted to do my part. When you get put into a position where you feel like you can’t do anything, it can be hard to deal with. I’d constantly be looking and trying to do whatever I could in that position, but at the end of the day bad stuff still happens. Bad people still get good guys and you just sit there feeling powerless.”
The young Soldier spent a year at the forward operating base. Coming home wasn’t easy for Emmel. He would find himself getting frustrated at people who would complain about their problems, when all he could think about were the issues in Afghanistan.
“You’d hear people talk about how their TV shows aren’t on or that the mall is closed this weekend and I was just angry at everybody because their problems, to me, were frivolous,” he said.
Emmel said that his frustration lasted for about two years until he committed himself to his college courses, which distracted him from everything that was going on in his mind.
After college, he took on another deployment — this time to Washington, D.C.
“My unit deployed as the air defense for Washington, and I realized that I could take everything I learned from my first deployment and teach it to the other Soldiers,” he said.
Emmel began helping Soldiers with their finances, jobs, family life and anything that they struggled with during their first deployment to D.C. He said that helping his fellow Soldiers helped him with his frustrations.
“It was great,” he said. “I built some lifelong friendships with some of my young Soldiers in that deployment.”
Toward the end of his deployment, things were looking up for Emmel — or so he thought.
“Everything is going right. I’m married, my wife is awesome and I’m getting my college degree,” he said. “Then once everything was done and I had nothing else to work on, all of a sudden, this emotion I buried started creeping back up.”
Within two months’ time, Emmel said he began questioning his part in Afghanistan again.
“I didn’t do enough. I failed. I should go back,” he said.
Emmel fell into a rapid decline.
“It was depression,” he added. “I could get out of bed to do my job and as soon as my job was done, I’d go right back and just lay in bed. I had no idea where it came from. I told my wife, ‘I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know what to do’.”
While driving one day, Emmel had a thought he never expected to emerge.
“I’d pick out the pillar on the freeway and thought, ‘all I have to do is hit that pillar with no seat belt and this would all be done,’” he said.
Emmel thought to himself, “What am I doing? What the hell am I thinking about this for? Nothing is wrong.”
After talking to the chaplain and his wife, Emmel decided that the only way he could get over the depression was to take it on himself.
“When I got home to Bismarck I had to build biking into my life,” he said. “I had to make myself develop a habit.”
Emmel would make sure that his bike and equipment were easily accessible for him so that all he had to do was hop in his car and go mountain biking.
“I started losing weight, getting physically healthy,” he said. “Then, once my physical health was better, my mental health and everything else got better.”
He began riding more and more. Between going on tours and participating in races, biking became paramount in his life.
“I planned a 600-mile loop from Bismarck up into Minnesota and then back to Fargo for drill,” he said. “It was during that trip when I realized, ‘I’m doing 100 miles a day, I’m feeling good, I’m feeling healthy and I can do this!’”
After his accomplishment, Emmel set an even bigger goal.
“I’m going to set something I would have never considered a possibility for myself,” he said. “I want to do a race across the country.”
Emmel has trained for the past year and will continue to train for the coast-to-coast race. In the midst of it all, he transferred from Army to Air National Guard and is currently cross training career fields. He is now at Goodfellow Air Force Base for technical training.
Locals can spot him in his sand-colored van with a custom decal reading, “Leg Day Every Day.”
“A lot of my fellow Soldiers would lift weights, and they would all make fun of me for just riding bikes,” he said.
“That’s when I would make the joke back, ‘It’s leg day every day!’”