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Riding his bike across the country was always on Rob Richer's bucket list, but with the suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, last December, the former CIA officer and his wife Kim finally had a reason to ride.
"To me this ride is about saying something to them, your family member was special," said Rob, who spent his career in the Middle East. He told Fox News the journey across eight states was highly personal. "They loved you and they were doing something for their country."
"These people, I felt a real affinity for," Kim Richer told Fox before one of the couple's final training sessions. "This could have been me left behind and my children left behind."
Seven new stars for Khost are chiseled into the memorial wall at CIA headquarters. Now, there are 102 stars – each one for an agency employee who died in the line of duty. Twenty-two stars have been added since Al Qaeda attacked the twin tours, the Pentagon and Shanksville Pennsylvania.
"Our teams were on the ground in Afghanistan 15 or 16 days after 9/11; we were the first in," John McLaughlin told Fox in a rare interview about the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation. McLaughlin spent 22 years at the agency. Having served as deputy director and acting director, McLaughlin said 9/11 was a tipping point.
"The first American to die in Afghanistan was a CIA officer. Johnny Michael Spann died in November 2001 in a firefight at a prison in Mazar-i-Sharif. Spann was buried in Arlington National Cemetery because he also was a captain in the Marine Corps. According to the Arlington Cemetery website, Spann was shot twice in the head.
"When Mike Spann was killed in Afghanistan, it really rang a bell for us. Sooner or later, we're going to feel an obligation to provide support to the families of people killed in the line of duty. Mike had a wife and two children, one of which started college with the help of our support." McLaughlin also told Fox that this past June, the foundation awarded about $520,000 in scholarships to 31 students. Twenty were children of fallen officers.
Because of the secrecy their jobs require, the Richers say CIA officers who die in the line of duty don’t get the recognition they deserve. There are a lot of sacrifices when a mother or father, like the officers killed in Khost, are away from home and families for long periods of time.
The Richers' photo album tells that story. While his wife and kids lived in the Middle East, including tours in Yemen, Oman, Jordan and Tunisia, Rob was constantly on the road and his kids didn’t know why.
"Raising a family with someone who’s in the CIA is different from raising a family any place else," Kim explained as she showed pictures of their kids at the pyramids or riding horseback in Jordan. "There's a lot of single parenting that goes on and a lot of sort of covering as to 'where is Daddy?' because many times I didn’t know and many times, I didn’t know when he’d be back."
The Richers' kids were told what dad did for a living when they were 12 or 13, though some of their kids claimed to know already. The hard part, according to Rob, was missing big moments in your kids' lives that you can never get back.
"My daughter, who is 23, can recite to you everything I missed. She’ll start saying you missed my band recital, my 16th birthday, you weren’t there when I graduated from this class."
Now retired from the agency, Rob said he’s making it a priority to spend more time with his family – though he knows the seven officers killed in Khost will never have that chance.
The training for the cross-country ride has been rigorous --about 70 to 75 miles a day right now. Since April, they’ve each put 4,000 miles on their two bikes. They are now getting e-mails to their website from families connected to Khost, with offers of help. One of the Khost families will be with them at the start in Jacksonville, Fla., this Saturday, and another family will be with them when they finish in San Diego, October 27.
The Richers will be wearing special wrist bands along the way.
"We wear these bands that were sent to us by a gentleman at the base where they were killed. And they basically say Khost, the date of the deaths and then seven stars.” Rob explained.
The Richers hope to raise enough money for a couple of good scholarships. Already, donations have come in from unexpected places. Some people have sent $20 in an envelope. All of it counts, according to McLaughlin, who told Fox that since 9/11, the risks taken by CIA officers have only increased.
"As we look to the future, no one knows whether this will happen again. But we can't assume it won't. We feel a more urgent obligation to raise funds and keep this mission going."
The Richers will be blogging and posting pictures at their website, "pedalingforpatriots.com." Donations can be made there as well.
"This isn't about Kim and me riding a bicycle," Rob said. "This is about what they did and we are carrying them with us.”"