If you happened to be driving Hwy. 10 in mid-September, on the 270-mile stretch of highway between the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Moorhead and the State Capitol in St. Paul, you may have seen a unique sight on the road’s shoulder: a man in a wheelchair, guided by a recumbent bicycle, slowly heading east.
A van led the way, with a documentary crew filming the whole thing. If you looked closely, you’d notice the man’s eyes were closed.
That’s because Kevin Shores — a member of the White Earth Band and a Navy veteran who has now twice ridden his wheelchair across Minnesota to advocate for military veterans with Gulf War illness — is blind.
“Not a lot of people can say they rode their wheelchair across the state, and even less people can say they did it twice,” said Shores, 53. “I hear all these people saying what they can’t do. As a blind guy in a wheelchair, look at what I just did. You want to tell me you can’t do something? Ha!”
Shores grew up in North St. Paul and joined the military in the mid-1980s, wanting money for college. He traveled the world on the USS Fox, a guided missile frigate. After the USS Stark was hit by Iraqi missiles in 1987, an incident that killed 37 American service members, it was Shores’ 8,000-ton cruiser that escorted the damaged ship out of the Persian Gulf while under threat of attack from Saddam Hussein.
In the early 1990s, Shores began having difficulties walking. He was frequently in pain. Doctors first diagnosed peroneal nerve paralysis. One morning, he got out of bed and felt like he was stepping on a bed of nails. Sometimes he wore a brace, and he got a wheelchair in the mid-1990s. By 2000, he got around only in the wheelchair. At the same time, he was losing his sight and was completely blind by 2007.
All the while, he was researching Gulf War illness, a chronic and mysterious sickness affecting Gulf War veterans. The illness has myriad symptoms. One unproven but often-cited theory for its cause: vaccinations that members of the military received to protect against potential biological warfare.
That’s the only explanation Shores has come up with: that something in the battery of inoculations he received wrecked his health.
“They first told us it was from the fine desert dust — that we as Americans weren’t used to desert,” Shores said. “Then they told us it was insects in the desert plants. Then they told us it was from biological and chemical weapons. And then some of the scrutiny went to the inoculations.”
During his wheelchair ride, Shores wanted to visit American Legion halls, but he couldn’t because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He fasted for eight days during the ride, which made it especially difficult, because he also did without the OxyContin he uses to manage pain. On the third day of the ride, he started suffering massive withdrawal symptoms — nausea, constant sweating, foggy thoughts — but he rested, took a lower dose of the medication and powered through. (Another reason for his ride: to advocate for easier access to cannabis for veterans to help them ease off opioids.)
“Kevin would struggle sometimes,” said Volker Goetze, a New York filmmaker who drove Shores’ support van. “He’d quit cold turkey on his opiates. But what impresses me most is how he manages to live by himself, with his daughter and with nurses coming by twice a week.”
He arrived at the Capitol in late September to a small crowd. A friend is contacting Guinness World Records to see if this marked the longest wheelchair ride by a blind man.
“As soon as we got to the Capitol I asked my crew, ‘Do we go to the capital of Iowa, and then work our way to Washington, D.C., and try to get there before the election?” Shores said. “But I don’t think my crew was up for it.”