What does it mean to be a Wounded Warrior? For many men and women in the U.S. armed services, it means to have left behind the comfort and safety of their homes and families only to trek through inhospitable lands filled with mines, enemy fire, and anti-American sentiment, possibly engaging in battle with menacing peoples and in some cases being wounded. But, for some it can mean all of the above with the added scarifice of losing one or more limbs in the process.
Dealing with this loss is overwhelming. Soldiers who face the challenge, confusion and emotional hurdle of recovering from their injuries and being thrust back into their lives often suffer disorientation and a loss of community upon separation from their unit. Into the picture comes the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and its services, one of which is the Soldier Ride.
The Wounded Warrior Project is right by the soldiers' side to provide comfort and a sense of identity almost from the moment they are wounded right through the time they transition back to civilian life. Awakening from a traumatic injury can be extremely shocking and disorienting. Soldiers are literally lifted unconscious from a battle in which they are wounded, often to wake up in another country wearing only a hospital gown with little or no knowledge of how they got there, stripped of all personal belongings beyond their dog tags. At this point the Wounded Warior Project steps in to provide these soldiers with specially prepared backpacks containing necessities such as shaving kits, underwear, socks and other personal items to begin fostering a sense of regained identity. The backpacks also contain a CD player and some other articles to help provide diversion from what can be hours, days, and more of waiting, giving these injured servicemen something to hold onto as they come to understand what has happened to them. Many of the soldiers receiving the backpacks say "It helps make them feel human again".
Back at home the WWP will help shepherd the injured soldiers through the process of regaining an active lifestyle through their adaptive sports programs. In the case of the Soldier Ride, the WWP will outfit the soldiers with adaptive devices to enable them to participate in a healthy, invirgorating and liberating sport that will ultimately help them learn how, and gain the strength, to lead an independent life once again. This not only gives the soldiers the personal empowerment of knowing they can return to an active life but presents a highly visible display to other Americans (including other injured veterans) of the services available to them at the WWP.
The heightened public awareness that the The Soldier Ride brings to the Wounded Warrior Project has a two fold benefit. Not only does it get the word out that there is help for wounded servicemen but, the ride itself is a fundraiser for the WWP. The first Solider ride (held in 2004 and run by Chris Carney) raised over 1 million dollars that went directly toward bringing more services and assistance to injured veterans.
From inside the ride:
The soldiers that take part in this event were wounded in battle. This gives them a unique knowledge of other servicemens' needs as injured soldeirs themselves. Also, the organizers are mostly veterans as well. They all know first hand what struggles will be faced both in life and on the road...
We had the opportunity to speak with Woody Groton, former U.S. Army Major and Ride Director of the Soldier Ride (a self-proclaimed bike nut who has raced road, mountain bikes and cyclocross).
He had this to add about the ride:
"From the beginning of a Soldier Ride segment to the end, you can really see a difference, it kind of energizes them (the soldiers). Without having spent time with them it's really hard to imagine. For instance, my father came along to act as a staff driver for me and he called my sister almost in tears talking about these guys. Because it's just such an incredible thing just to see them (taking back their lives)"
When asked about the improvements made in the prosthetics, Woody stated "...the people at Walter Reed are doing their best... ...now the prosthetics are so good, that even a guy who's a bilateral above the knee amputee can actually ride a regular bike."
And about the guys on the road and the ride itself, "You know the guys like to be pushed because they're military, because they're Marines, they're Airborne Rangers, they're paratroopers, they're all that kind... So they have that mentality...
Staff Sergeant Christopher Millward, is missing one leg, was actually hit in April of this year, but here he is two months later hand cycling. His goal is to get back in the bomb suit and get back on EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Status... We had dinner the night before the Manhattan Ride with the NYFD and he was sitting there talking with the fire fighters, and the New York City Police Department defused five live bombs last year and that was like a big deal for them. In nine months in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Millward defused 750 live bombs or IED's. He just can't wait to get back when he is strong enough. To get his prosthetic, and get back in the bomb suit and do his job. All of these guys, if they could get back to their unit tomorrow they would...
...we ended up cycling from Ground Zero up the West Side Highway with a Police escort, and then we did a lap of Central Park. Had I really thought about it, we probably should have done two or three laps around the Park, simply because it's such a lovely place to ride.
The Soldier Ride came about as a result of the brainstorming of the minds of Chris Carney and some of his buddies from a local night club in Amangansett, N.Y. along with John Melia (Founder of the Wounded Warrior Project). Carney who had run a successful local fundraiser to help a soldier in his town who had been wounded in Iraq, decided he wanted to do more. He and his friends visited the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They were so moved by the experience that they met with Melia to see how they could help. Melia suggested a ride. The Soldier ride was born.
Staff Sergeant Heath Calhoun U.S. Army (Ret.) who lost both of his legs in Iraq and is now a spokesman and counselor to the newly injured for the WWP joined the ride in 2005. Calhoun made that coast-to-coast journey using his hands on a specially outfitted handcycle. Each year the Soldier Ride revises the route and destinations of the event. In 2005 (when it was still an independent event, held to help the WWP) riders like Chris Carney and Staff Sergeant Heath Calhoun rode 4200 miles coast to coast, across the country picking up rider soldiers along the way.
Look for this year's route and spots where you can come out and cheer the riders on at:
Make a donation to help injured soldiers at: