Menke grateful for Hudson River swim experience

Photos courtesy Ryan Menke
Ryan Menke of Holland joined 30 former Navy SEALS on Aug. 3 for the Navy SEAL Hudson River Swim.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

As Ryan Menke dove into the Hudson River at New Jersey’s Liberty State Park on Aug. 3, “God Bless America” played in the background.

Menke participated in the Navy SEAL Hudson River Swim, the first sanctioned swim across the Hudson River to raise money to combat veteran homelessness. Menke was the only civilian who participated in the event alongside 30 former SEALs.

“It was incredible,” the Holland man said. “It was definitely the most honorable and inspiring thing I’ve ever done.”

Menke made his way into the event through a connection he made through his work as senior vice president of sales and marketing at OFS Brands. A few years ago, OFS was looking for a keynote speaker for the rollout of its new company identity and vision for the future.

A friend of Menke’s suggested Shannon Rusch, a Navy SEAL turned consultant, public speaker and founder of SEAL Swim Charities, an organization that aids suicidal veterans.

Since then, Menke and Rusch have become friends. When Menke learned of the swim, he called Rusch to see if he’d be allowed to participate. Rusch made it happen, and the week of Aug. 3, Menke found himself in New York City with a bunch of former Navy SEALs.

The event included pushups and pullups between swims.

The experience began Friday when the group appeared on “Fox and Friends,” a FOX News television program. They then visited the New York Stock Exchange where trading paused for a few minutes and traders came up to thank the SEALs. Then, on Saturday, Menke joined the SEALs in the most grueling fitness challenge of his life.

The event started with participants swimming half a mile from Liberty State Park in New Jersey to the Statue of Liberty, where they climbed out of the water to complete a pushup and pullup challenge. Then, it was back in the water to swim another half mile to Ellis Island for more pushups and pullups. The next stop was New York City’s Battery Park, a little more than a mile across the water from Ellis Island, where the participants climbed out of the water and ran a mile to America’s Response Monument and 9/11 Memorial where they finished more pushups and pullups.

The event took between two and two and a half hours to complete, and Menke remembers it being a manageable challenge. Rather than being completely exhausted, he said, he found he was in good enough shape that he could enjoy the event. He attributes that to hours of training.

“I think that’s like anything in life,” he said. “If you overprepare, you can enjoy the moment.”

There were plenty of once-in-a-lifetime moments for Menke to enjoy. In the two weeks since the event, he said, he’s been trying to reflect on and journal every moment of the day.

Two moments keep standing out. The first came in the first leg of the race when he looked up at the Statue of Liberty while swimming in the water beneath her. The second moment came during the last leg of the race as Menke and the SEALs ran to the 9/11 Memorial carrying large American flags. As they passed people on the street, Menke recalled, passersby stopped to applaud and thank the SEALs. Both are moments Menke will never forget.

Ryan Menke with his wife, Kimberly, and daughter, Ella Cate.

“There were a million emotions that day,” Menke said. “But the one that trumped them all was gratitude.”

Menke was grateful just to be there and be able to participate in the event, he said, and it really drove home his gratitude for the freedoms American veterans have fought for and their sacrifices.

He was also grateful to the event’s organizers for putting it together and to everyone who donated. Altogether, the event raised $200,000, enough to get 20 homeless veterans off the streets of New York City. Of that $200,000, $75,000 came from Menke, leading the Dubois County man to also feel strong gratitude toward his co-workers at OFS, the Dubois County community as a whole and those from across the county who donated to his campaign.

“I think we’re all at our best when we’re helping out our fellow man and picking them up when they’re down,” Menke said. “I think this community does a good job of that, and it really showed at a national level with this event.”

The swim’s organizers are already working on next year’s event, and they asked Menke to serve on the steering committee as a civilian representative. In that role, Menke will help decide how civilians will be able to participate in future events. There have also been discussions about how to give the event a national reach.

Here in Southwest Indiana, participating in the event helped Menke make connections locally. Several OFS employees have shared stories of their struggles to transition to civilian life after serving, and Menke has learned of a transition shelter for veterans in Vanderburgh County. He plans to reach out to see what kind of partnerships are possible.

“[Our veterans’] struggle is something we don’t talk about enough, and not enough is being done to help them,” Menke said.

Through participation in Navy SEAL Hudson River Swim and the many connections the experience has given him, Menke hopes he and those who support him can continue to help make a difference for veterans.




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com