On A Two-wheeled Odyssey To Heal Wounds Of Vietnam Joining Veterans On The Trek Will Be A Young N.j. Man Touched By The War.

Posted: December 15, 1997

Derry Mason has climbed mountains. He has skied for a Division I college, sailed, snowshoed, played lacrosse, rappelled from rocks and led whitewater-rafting excursions - all on one good leg and another he casually calls ``my stump.''

Come Jan. 1, the 24-year-old adventurer will face a challenge of a more emotional sort when he joins 80 cyclists on the Vietnam Challenge, a 1,400-mile journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The other riders will be American and Vietnamese veterans, both able-bodied and disabled - many confronting their memories of the war for the first time in 25 years.

In Derry Mason, son of an Army vet, they will see how the war shaped the life of one who wasn't yet alive to experience it.

``There's no avoiding it: Every morning when I get up and put my leg on, I'm part of the legacy of the war,'' said Mason, a first-year teacher of outdoor education at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. He wears a prosthesis on his right leg, the result of an amputation necessitated by a birth defect believed to have been caused by his father's exposure to Agent Orange.

Why would anyone - especially battle-scarred veterans - want to ride the length of Vietnam, through mountains and mud, along the torn nation's one main road?

Why not? asked World T.E.A.M. Sports, a Charlotte, N.C.-based organization that seeks to showcase the capabilities of people with disabilities by pairing them with the able-bodied for international challenge events.

In 1990, World T.E.A.M. climbers conquered Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. In 1995, they pedaled 13,000 miles around the world. In April, a World T.E.A.M. group competed at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. A mixed team of extreme athletes even won the Antarctica Marathon.

``There is a deep, deep urge in this nation to heal the wound of Vietnam,'' said Peter Kiernan, cofounder of the organization. ``But how? It's an incredibly painful, complicated war. How do you appropriately memorialize it?''

With 1998 marking the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, the organization came up with a humanitarian plan: Form a single cycling team of veterans from both sides of the war, and have them ride through the country along the bombing route.

For most of the U.S. veterans, it will be the first return to the country since the war ended; for most of the Vietnamese, the first postwar contact with their American enemies.

``Hopefully, I can find some inner peace facing my former enemies, the so-called `boogeymen','' said Robert Maras, 51, a Marine vet from Lakehurst, N.J., who suffered a shrapnel wound to his right thigh. Maras, a former police officer who has overcome alcoholism, depression and two suicide attempts, now sits on the national board of directors of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He will ride on a tandem bike with a blind California veteran he's never met.

``I still wake up in the middle of the night with bad dreams, cold sweats,'' Maras said. ``I'm hoping this will give me some type of closure.''

The 16-day trip will be led by Tour de France legend Greg LeMond. The $2 million price tag was met through corporate donations (Cannondale gave bicycles; Reebok, clothing; Federal Express, support vans) and gifts from foundations including Dana and Christopher Reeve's. A Los Angeles auction of celebrity bicycles drew donated wheels from Madonna, Shaquille O'Neal, Elizabeth Taylor and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

New York's Hospital for Special Surgery will send doctors to do roadside triage of needy Vietnamese along the route. World T.E.A.M. also has pledged $200,000 and 3,000 prosthetic arms and legs to set up an orthotics wing for children at the primative Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi.

Through the Asia Society's web site (http://www.askasia.org), students from around the world can follow the trip, read journal entries, and learn about Vietnam's culture, geography and history.

Though organizers planned the trip for veterans, Derry Mason seemed a natural to participate. ``He's as much a veteran of the Vietnam conflict as anybody,'' said Kiernan.

Derry's story began in 1971, when Trip Mason, a sergeant in an Army Airborne unit, began jumping out of helicopters in Vietnam. Two years later, when Trip's son Frederick ``Derry'' Mason was born, his right leg was four inches shorter than the left. Five years after that, Peter Mason was born with a misshapen head. In both cases, doctors and the family suspected Trip's exposure to Agent Orange.

As a child, Derry could barely walk without pain, let alone play sports. He was 5-foot-3, overweight and miserable when he decided at 14 to have his right leg amputated below the knee.

The decision proved life-changing: He grew seven inches in a matter of months. With an artificial foot, he could walk, stand straight, even tackle wild outdoor activities. To this day, he calls July 1 - the day of his amputation - his ``second birthday.''

``I've tried almost every sport, except for jai-alai and hurling - and only because I haven't found a place to do them,'' said Mason, now 6 feet tall, who skied for Middlebury College in Vermont and on the disabled circuit. ``I haven't found anything I can't do.''

Though Mason's father has said he would like to go back to Vietnam someday, he will not accompany Derry on the trip.

``I think it will be more emotional for him than for me,'' Trip Mason said from the family's home in Salem, Mass. ``Vietnam in my mind is all put away. I'd just as soon leave it that way. But he does feel an attachment to it.''

It is, in some ways, a literal attachment. One that Derry takes off only to bathe and sleep. One he can't put away. One the Vietnam Challenge may help alleviate.

``My father has never talked about Vietnam too much,'' he explains. ``I think, through this trip, I might get a better understanding of what he went through, of my family, of myself.

``And, hopefully, we'll get people to say, `Look at what these people are doing. You really are only as disabled as you think you are.' ''

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