Friday, May 7, 2010

I recently was honored to help lead the Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride through Annapolis, as part of a four day series of rides known as the "White House to the Lighthouse", beginning at the White House and ending in Annapolis. The goal of the ride is to rehabilitate severely wounded soldiers in mind and body.

This was my third year guiding the thirty-five wounded vets around the narrow streets of Annapolis and I feel blessed to be a part of such an inspirational mission. Half of our riders have lost at least one limb, and many have lost both legs and ride specially designed tricycles. For most of the riders, this is their first foray back into normal life and their first test is a hard one indeed.

They began their journey with a 20-mile ride through Washington and Arlington Cemetery. Day two found them riding through the streets of Baltimore, hosted by Under Armour and ending with a Orioles/Yankees game. Day three was a hot and difficult 33-mile ride from Andrews Air Force Base to Annapolis, with a crab feast at Mikes’s sponsored by Boston Scientific. And the final day we did a 21-mile romp through Annapolis, ending at Armadillos, where Brendan the owner pulled out all the stops for the tired riders.

This year we had two amputees who had lost their legs less than two months ago in Iraq. To see these brave men and women cope with their traumatic injuries is to make one realize how blessed we are to be healthy and whole. And when you see these proud vets riding their hearts out, you find yourself often crying with both joy and sadness.

But this is not a pity party. None of the riders want you to feel sorry for them. The Soldier Ride is a journey that leads from the hospital bed at Walter Reed to a brave new life in wherever they call home, and they want only respect.

The logistics of a Soldier Ride are mind-numbingly complicated. U-Haul is the major sponsor and they provide the trucks that haul the bikes and gear around and service the riders at every stop.

TREK bicycles provides helmets, shirts, and tricked-out bikes for those riders who can handle a standard bicycle.

But how can a person who has had their legs blown off ride a bike?

There are two vendors who supply the basic prototypes: ICE Trikes out of Great Britain and Catrike out of Florida. These are low-rider tricycles with hand cranks outfitted with special breaks, gears, and steering column.

The bikes are then handed off to a company called Creative Mobility out of St. Charles, Illinois, owned by a Hallmark Hero named Hal Honeyman. Hal started his business in 1975, and when is son Jacob was born with cerebral palsy he began a quest to give his handicapped son a way to be like other kids and ride a bike. This led him to design special $2,000-$5,000 bikes that allow mobility for anyone, no matter their disability.

"Every person we run into has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, and our job is to find their strengths. They might be able to use their arms, or legs, or any portion of that, and we identify the things that they can use to get out and ride and be successful."

There are eight regional Soldier Rides around the United States each year and Hal attends every one and tailors the bike for the needs of each soldier who is like a unique fingerprint and presents a special technical problem. Hal works with the physical therapists at Walter Reed, making sure that the bikes fit properly for every wounded warrior.

At the end of our final ride on Saturday, Hal asked me about the Alex Hailey/Kunta Kinte Memorial at the City Dock. I took him over and explained Annapolis’ slave trading past and we looked at the story boards which told the tale of lost lives and perseverance. It was a story Hal could relate to.

"Every day that I come to work or do a Soldier Ride, I get to see someone become mobile. And mobility opens the doors to independence and greater self-esteem."

We both started to cry.

The Soldier Ride will do that to you. It teaches you that no matter what curves life throws at you, you can’t give up.

I asked Hal if he had ever encountered a veteran who was so badly maimed that he couldn’t be outfitted on a bike?

"Only one. We have a veteran at Walter Reed who has lost all or portions of all four limbs. We haven’t figured out how to get him on a bike yet. But we will."

Let us all hope and pray this valiant soldier can ride with us next year in Annapolis.

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