By Darrell Parks
For many of these combat-wounded veterans the Wounded Warrior program offers a way to return to an active lifestyle. Most of these men and women have been physically active throughout their lives and are eager to reclaim an athletic activity. The program offers a chance to get on a bike and prove to themselves, “Hey, I can still do this.”
It’s hard to beat riding in the Florida Keys in January!
Last year I had the privilege of spending some time with the Soldier Ride participants at the Tour of California. My encounter with the riders was such a moving experience that I decided to devote some time to helping promote their events. This year I had the honor of meeting many wounded warriors at different Soldier Ride events form Florida to California. Even more inspirational was the chance to actually participate in a couple of local Soldier Rides and ride alongside these brave men and women.
Traffic is cleared on the 7 mile bridge for the Soldier Ride participants.
My first Soldier Ride event this year was the 4th annual Sunshine State Challenge which starts in Miami. This is one of the more popular events as Florida is obviously a great place to be in January! The ride starts in South Beach, traveling through the Florida Keys, and ends in Key West a couple of days later. I hooked up with the riders on the second day as they rode throughout the middle keys.
Former pro cyclist Saul Raisin leads out the Soldier Ride in the Florida Keys.
Saul Raisin led out the Keys ride through the city of Marathon. Saul suffers from the same disability that is a common injury among Wounded Warriors. Saul lives with Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, as a result of a horrific crash sustained while racing in Europe. It’s estimated that TBI accounts for almost 25 percent of combat casualties suffered by US Forces in the Global war on Terror – nearly 5000 service members!
The riders enjoy a well deserved rest stop at the Disabled American Veterans post.
The day’s rest stop was held at the local DAV (Disabled American Veterans) post where the warriors were greeted by a huge cheering crowd. They were then treated to a welcoming ceremony by the local American Legion Color Guard. A nice lunch was donated and served by the Veterans Council and many other local volunteers. Donations from local fund raising events were also announced and distributed at the stop. The local organizations and citizens of the Florida Keys certainly went all out to support the Warriors of the Soldier Ride. The day finished with a beautiful ride across the famous seven mile bridge. Before the warriors headed home on Sunday, Key West’s most famous resident, Jimmy Buffett stopped by to say hello and treat the riders to breakfast.
Captain Jonathan Pruden (US Army) and SSG Mike Fradera (US Army retired) reflect on the day’s ride.
A month later warriors from the West Coast met in Santa Barbara for the 2nd Annual Soldier Ride: Golden State. This event included rides in Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and San Diego. After a beautiful ride in Santa Barbara the warriors headed to Paso Robles to catch the end of the 5th stage of the Amgen Tour of California. It was a thrilling finish as Columbia’s Mark Cavendish out sprinted Quickstep’s Tom Boonen for the win.
The warriors picked a great Tour of California stage to catch the finish of in Paso Robles.
I met up with the warriors after the race as they were invited to Team Astana’s hotel for an inside look at pro cycling. The riders were given a road racing primer by Sean Yates including a few colorful nuggets from his time spent in the pro peloton.
Astana DS and cycling legend Sean Yates addresses the Warriors.
The riders were then treated to a meet and great with Astana riders Chris Horner and Gregory Rast. Greg and Chris fielded questions from the Warriors with topics ranging from race radios and crashes to, of course, racing alongside Lance Armstrong. These pro racers seemed to have a genuinely good time responding to questions, handing out swag, and signing autographs for the Warriors.
Susan Katz, USOC Paralympics, spends some time with Gregory Rast and Chris Horner.
Specialist Sean McEndree (US Army Retired) is all smiles as Chris Horner has the crowd in stitches.
After the meet and greet the riders were given a rare treat. They were each invited to check out the Trek Livestrong road bike belonging to one Mr. Lance Armstrong. The riders also got to see the Astana mechanics building up a new TT bike for Lance as his stolen TT bike had just been recovered that day.
Melissa Stockwell poses for a picture with Lance’s Livestrong bike.
My next encounter with the Soldier Ride was close to home with the 3rd annual White House to Lighthouse Challenge in April. President Barack Obama welcomed the Warriors to the White House to kick off the 2009-2010 National Soldier Ride Tour. Flanked by Senators and other VA leaders, the president welcomed guests and thanked the troops for their service. “There are heroes among us today,” the president said. “Men and women who served their country without falter, without fail; men and women who selflessly risked their lives on behalf of others, so that others might live.” President Obama shared the stories of riders Sergeant Jeremiah Church, Sergeant First Class Rashe Hall, and Staff Sergeant Dillon Behr, each of whom were awarded the Silver Star for their heroic actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama kicks off the ride at the White House.
The president commended all of the warriors for their courage to come back from their injuries, and recognized the families who supported them. He asked everyone who saw a rider to express their appreciation. “To anyone who’s along their route this weekend, I ask you to go out there and cheer. Salute. Say thank you. And we’ll do our part to support our troops, their families, and all who have worn the uniform of the United States of America — because when it comes to their service and sacrifice, warm words and gestures are more than warranted, but they’re not nearly enough.”
The president also pledged to fulfill promises America has made to veterans. “Just as these wounded warriors are there for one another, this country is going to be there for them,” he said.
Staff Sergeant Joe Beimfohr (US Army Retired) cruises past the Washington Monument.
This was a special Soldier Ride for me as it was my first experience of actually cycling with the warriors. The D.C. kickoff also brought other guest riders, including several spouses, representatives from Soldier Ride’s sponsor U-Haul, and actor Matthew Modine. I joined up with the group of more than 40 Wounded Warriors and guests as they departed from the White House.
Riding with the Warriors down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Capitol building.
The Soldier Ride event continued beyond the White House with rolling road closures through the streets of the US capitol. I felt proud to be riding with these brave cyclists as tourists and bystanders cheered them on while we made our way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the finish on Capitol Hill. We were welcomed on the Capitol steps with warm greetings from Senators Lamar Alexander (TN) and Richard Burr (NC), and Representatives Wally Herger (CA), Walter Jones (NC), and Paul Kanjorski (PA).
Lance Corporal Jose Gasca (USMC), Staff Sergeant Alfredo Delosantos (US Army), Staff Sergeant Brian Schar (US Army), and Sergeant Patrick Marziale (US Army) relax after their ride through Washington DC.
The final day of the Whitehouse to Lighthouse Challenge I found myself meeting up with the warriors in Annapolis, Maryland. I was fortunate to be one of 70 guest riders, including gold medal cyclist and Paralympian PierAngelo Beltrami, and the U.S. Navy Cycling Team. At the beginning of the day in Annapolis, Steve Carr, chief of staff for the mayor of Annapolis, led out the group on a tour of the city.
The US Navy Cycling Team joins the warriors in Annapolis.
We biked from Jonas Green Park through the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy and historic Annapolis. At the Naval Academy, throngs of midshipmen and instructors clapped and cheered for the warriors. The crowds were extremely energetic and seemed to be four to five deep along much of the route through the Academy. Woody Groton, Soldier Ride’s director, said, “It was exhilarating to see the warriors riding with all the people supporting them as if it were the Tour de France.”
Cheered on by the crowd at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
First Lieutenant Andrew Kinard (USMC) flies the US Navy cycling team jersey during the Annapolis ride.
Sergeant Brent Hendrix (US Army Ret), Staff Sergeant Brian Schar (US Army), and Sergeant Brian Taylor (US Army) lead the group up a climb on the Annapolis ride.
The ride concluded in historic downtown Annapolis at Armadillos Pub. The warriors were treated to great food and spirits thanks to the generosity of the proprietor. The riders were excited to complete another soldier ride. Some of them had just finished their first, some had completed too many to remember, but they were all certain this one was not going to be their last.
A blind Warrior gets a “hi 5” while riding a tandem.
As the November temperatures start to dip, I’m reminded that winter will soon be rearing its frosty head here in Virginia. It’s time for me to plan my next soldier ride as well. January in the Florida Keys sounds just about perfect.
Warriors are cheered on at the Navel Academy in Annapolis.
For information and to participate in a ride, email Woody Groton, Soldier Ride’s director, or call (904) 296-7350 for further Soldier Ride updates and news.
For more Wounded Warrior images visit: DarrellParks.com
Soldier Ride Schedule:
Soldier Ride, High Desert, Las Vegas, NV – Phoenix, AZ, November 10-15, 2009
Soldier Ride, Sunshine State, Miami – Key West, FL, January 13-17, 2010
Soldier Ride, Lone Star State, San Antonio – Austin – Dallas, TX, March, 17-21, 2010
Soldier Ride, Washington to Annapolis, Washington, D.C. – Andrews Air Force Base – Annapolis, Maryland, April 28 -May 2, 2010
Soldier Ride, Golden State: Oxnard – Los Angeles – San Diego, California, May 19-23, 2010
Soldier Ride, Midwest: Waterloo – Milwaukee – Chicago, June 9-13, 2010
Soldier Ride, Empire State, New York, NY – Long Island, NY, July 21-25, 2010
Soldier Ride,Tenessee, Fort Campbell, KY – Nashville, TN, September 22-26, 2010
Soldier Ride, Carolinas, Ft Bragg – Charlotte, NC October 13-17, 2010