I will be leading the Wounded Warriors on the 3rd Annual Soldier Ride "White House to the Lighthouse" bike ride on Saturday May 1st, and in honor of this special event, I'd like to share my first story about these brave men & women who have sacrificed so greatly on behalf of our nation.
I was standing on the south lawn of the White House, on a gloriously sunny spring day, watching President Bush shake the hands of twenty-five brave veterans on bicycles who had lost various limbs in Iraq, and I began to cry. I had been invited to be a part of an incredible program called the Wounded Warrior Project, and this gathering in our nation’s capital was the kickoff for the White House to Lighthouse Soldier Ride.
Woody Groton, the group’s Executive Director, had asked me out of the blue to put together and then lead a challenging ride around Annapolis, that would include a glimpse of the Thomas Point Lighthouse.
I met the riders and their support crew the next afternoon at Jonas Green Park, after they finished a long ride from the Inner Harbor in Baltimore to Annapolis via the B&A Trail.
My old friend Dave Dionne, who is in charge of the County trails, had led them on the ride and he looked like he had been touched by angels. He couldn’t stop smiling and kept repeating, “It was the ride of a lifetime.”
Dave introduced me to Woody, who also had that same perpetual smile on his face. Woody put this crazy dream together a few years back. The goal is to rehabilitate the wounded vets in both mind and body, to challenge them to seize their lives, to become something more than they were or thought they ever could be.
Volunteers from New York to Florida accompany the riders on their quest, with aid from sponsors like U-Haul, who provide the trucks to haul all the gear, and Trek, who provide the tricked-out bikes for each rider.
I was immediately embraced as part of the Wounded Warrior family and the next thing I knew, I was driving their giant U-Haul filled with all of the bikes and gear back to my house where it could be parked safely for the night. I hadn’t known these folks for an hour and they trusted me with everything they owned.
I had laid out a route that included virtually every major road in Annapolis: the Academy Bridge, the Naval Academy, Main Street, Rowe Boulevard, Taylor Avenue, Spa Road, Hilltop Lane, Bay Ridge Avenue, the Eastport Bridge, and Bay Ridge.
The ride included stops at the City Dock for a warm welcome from City and State officials, the Navy Stadium, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, the Chesapeake Children’s Museum, the Bay Ridge Community Pool, and then finished downtown at Armadillos.
Words seem puny when I think about our ride through Annapolis. All I seem to remember are images of great sadness, joy and triumph.
A dark-haired lady vet holding her sleek, black carbon fiber leg behind her back while sitting at a picnic table before the ride, her arms draped casually over both ends as she flirted with some of the boys.
A wounded young officer with only one leg and one arm, tenderly kissing his wife for almost a minute right before they began the grueling 25-mile ride.
Trying my best to stay out in front of three low riders without legs who raced one another the whole way, and hearing them steadily talk about training for the Olympics together.
Two soldiers who had lost both of their legs, rolling like wet labs in the cool grass under a giant oak at our lunch stop at Maryland Hall on the hottest day of the year.
The volunteers from American Legion Post 175 and Salute our Veterans passing out lunches to each of the hot and tired soldier, whispering words of encouragement as if they were their sons and daughters.
A lone veteran getting out of his car in the middle of the street to shake the hands and thank several riders when we stopped to fix a bike on Hilltop Lane.
The families who lined the route as we rode along the water at Bay Ridge, waving homemade signs and flags.
Andrew Kinnard, a graduate of the Naval Academy, who lost both his legs, happily encouraging the members of the Academy Cycling Team to be all they can be.
A soldier who had been in a coma for four months and who the doctors all thought should be dead, riding a large, red tricycle around town as Parker Jones of Capital Cycle pushed him up each hill.
And the after ride party at Armadillos where Brendan the owner not only supplied free beer, but the foxy Miller Lite girls to serve it to the thirsty and triumphant soldiers.
The Wounded Riders represent both loss and inspiration. They come from towns large & small, from luxury and poverty. They each have a story to tell. But they are not super heros. Some are bitter and some are better. They are us. When we look at them we see ourselves and wonder: Could I rise above such wounds? And so, the healing begins.