AUGUSTA — Tom L’Italien, who concluded a 48-day bike ride Wednesday as part of his mission to raise awareness of and eliminate suicides by veterans, said even on the roughest days on the road, he didn’t consider quitting.

“I’m pedaling with 100,000 veterans who committed suicide” since 2001, the Arizona man said at a ceremony held at Old Fort Western to mark the completion of his trip. “You can’t let them down, just like (the country) can’t let them down.”

The 65-year-old, who is not a military veteran himself, completed the ride from Utah to Augusta on Wednesday, wrapping up his ride meant to raise money and awareness toward the goal of eliminating veterans’ suicides.

It was his third such long-distance bicycle ride for that cause. He said he considered quitting only once, on his first ride in 2013, from Arizona to Boston, when his body was beaten down by a mountainous ride through New York.

“I got off my bike and said, ‘That’s it. I’ve had it,'” L’Italien said. “Twenty minutes later I got back on, after I thought about why I was doing it.”

He said riding a bike across the country is the easy part, something almost anyone could do. The hard, and more important part, he said, is the work to raise money and awareness in hopes of preventing suicides by veterans.

A motorcade of veterans on motorcycles and public safety workers in firetrucks and police cars met L’Italien on Western Avenue to provide an escort for him to Old Fort Western, where veterans and officials welcomed him and praised his efforts to help veterans.

“We are all forever grateful to the sacrifices veterans have made for our freedom,” Mayor David Rollins said, as a large bald eagle glided over the proceedings. “We are truly humbled by your commitment.”

L’Italien said an average of 22 veterans a day take their own lives.

He is president of the nonprofit group The Team Veteran Foundation. The foundation funds ALIVE, or Advocacy for Life in Veterans Empowerment, a nongovernmental program that works to help veterans get the services and help they need.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, an Army combat veteran himself, said many veterans need help after returning from war.

“When you see the horror and extensive violence that occurs in combat, it can only change you,” Liberty said. “‘No man left behind’ is the (motto on the battlefield). The same should hold true in society. No veteran should be left without services. No veteran should be left alone.”

L’Italien said he began his bicycle rides after, at 2 a.m. on Jan. 10, 2013, “I was visited by the Holy Spirit, who told me I was going to jump on a bike and ride across the country.”

He left 11 days later, dedicating that and his two other rides since then to the mission of eliminating veteran suicides.

“I think we need to do so much more. I think our country and maybe the state has failed our veterans, and we need to do better,” Rep. Donna Doore, D-Augusta, said at the ceremony.

L’Italien rode his red bicycle, with a small trailer he said weighs around 50 pounds attached to it, into Old Fort Western, accompanied by members of the Patriot Guard Riders and American Legion Riders on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Rollins said the city became involved as L’Italien’s ending point for his ride after L’Italien called to ask whether the city would receive him. Rollins told him the city would, and he said the city sought to roll out the red carpet for him.

L’Italien had to pause before speaking, choked up with emotion as he took the microphone. As L’Italien gathered himself, Jonathan Dyer, who later joined other veterans group members in making a donation to his cause, and who was clad in a black leather vest with “American Legion Riders” on the back, shouted out, “We got your back, brother.”

Mike Edgecomb, a ride captain for the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcyclists who turn out for veterans’ funerals, said it was heartwarming to see how Maine’s capital city supports veterans.

L’Italien said the hardest parts of his ride were challenging weather, including a tornado that came within 20 miles of him, and fatigue. He said toward the end of the trip he ran out of money, and he sustained himself with a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter.

He said veteran suicides are a silent epidemic many people are not aware of. There are an average of 8,000 a year.

L’Italien said he plans another long-distance bicycle trip for the cause next year, when he expects to encounter still more people who are not aware that so many veterans commit suicide.

“I’m just an ordinary guy trying to show veterans I appreciate what they did for me,” he said.

Donations to The Team Veteran Foundation may be made at the group’s website at www.TTVFoundation.org.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

kedwards@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @kedwardskj