In a single deadly moment last December, the lives of five CIA officers and two CIA contractors were gone. The flash of a suicide bomber had singlehandedly delivered the largest loss of life the agency had experienced since the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing. It took time for the world to discover the identities of those killed on the remote base known as Khost in Afghanistan, mainly because of the clandestine nature of their work. So you might think its odd that a former high-ranking agency official would put a public face on their deaths. And you'd be right.
Having known and even trained some of the victims of that attack, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations Rob Richer decided he couldn't just sit back and grieve alone.These victims were not living the high life as the James Bond-type spies we've come to know. These were mothers, fathers, husbands, and lifelong friends. They were separated for their families for months and years at a time. They were more than names, they were passionate patriots making an incredible sacrifice, along with their families, because they believed they could make a difference when it came to capturing or killing al Qaeda leaders.
Jennifer Lynne Matthews was the base chief at Khost station and mother of three. Darren LaBonte and Harold Brown, Jr. were both fathers and husbands. Scott Michael Roberson was a husband and father to-be. Elizabeth Hanson was an agency analyst and a good friend to many. Jeremy Wise was a husband and stepfather, and Dane Clark Paresi was a father and husband. Wise and Paresi are regarded by the agency as officers, even though they worked for the private military contractor Xe, better known as Blackwater.
The families of spies are often left to grieve in silence. It can be a lonely and isolating experience, which is why the rather small intelligence community tends to band together to help their own. In 2001, a group of former agency officials decided to start contributing to a fund that would benefit the children of those who died. They wanted to help with the unfinished business of making sure the kids could afford a good education, and Richer decided this was the way for him to honor his fallen comrades.
Richer has made the unusual step of going public in their honor with a marathon bike ride, and his wife, Kim, a former Marine, is along for the ride. They've launched the website www.pedalingforpatriots.com, and they intend to raise as much money as they can as they bike across America "Khost" to coast.
It requires a grueling training schedule and has changed life in the Richer household. The couple wakes up between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. every morning, head to the kitchen to mix a concoction of energy juice, and then hit the open road one pedal at a time.
"We could be out as long as six or seven hours a day," says Richer, who is now retired from the agency and works as a private consultant.
With a training schedule like that, inevitably, other things get tossed to they wayside. "It's just looking at it as a job and saying, OK, I need to be gone this amount of time and so some things just have to go by the wayside. Like Housecleaning," jokes Kim Richer. She describes herself as non-athletic but says she knew once her husband started down this track, that she'd have to join him if she ever wanted to see him.
"Rob does crazy things all the time, like climb Kilimanjaro, so when he said he wanted to bike cross-country I knew how much training had to go into this, and I knew if I wanted to see him, I had to come along," says Kim Richer. Incidentally, the couple will be spending their 27th anniversary on the road together, somewhere along the 3,200 miles of America they plan to cover riding from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego, California, beginning on September 11.
Will it all be worth it? There was a good initial dose of donations in the early days, but that's trickled off a bit now. Richer believes the giving will shift gears, though, once the ride begins. "People really want to see us suffer before they give money," he jokes.
Richer and his wife are certainly paying a price with this effort, but in this case, it's still less of a price than that paid by the fallen they are setting out to honor.