Grueling heat last week threw a glitch into Soldier Ride, a fund-raiser for the Wounded Warrior project, but it was no deterrent for the 30-plus injured veterans who took part in three days of bicycle or hand cycle rides through Manhattan, Fire Island, Babylon, and the Hamptons.
Over 2,500 riders and walkers participated in the New York area collectively, and well over $300,000 was raised, including proceeds from a Rock the Farm concert and party in Amagansett on Saturday night.
More than 1,000 riders joined the Hamptons leg of the ride, which was dedicated to Lance Cpl. Jordan C. Haerter, a marine from Sag Harbor who was killed in Iraq in 2008. The Wounded Warrior Project is a nonprofit organization that provides emotional, physical, and educational support to injured war veterans.
Faced with record-breaking heat at the end of last week, the organizers of the ride shortened it to 20 miles in New York City last Thursday, 30 miles in Babylon on Friday, and just 10 miles on the South Fork on Saturday, as opposed to the planned 60 miles “due to safety concerns,” said Nick Kraus, a founder of the event and co-owner of the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. Some opted to do the full 60 miles, but they were on their own.
The idea for the rides, which are now held all over the country (“always on the hottest day of summer,” according to Mr. Kraus), originated with Chris Carney, a bartender at the Talkhouse, who decided to bike across the United States to call attention to veterans. He pledged to raise money for the vets if Mr. Kraus and Peter Honerkamp, another owner of the Talkhouse, would support him. They agreed, holding an event at the bar and securing “a lot of pledges,” Mr. Kraus recalled. “So now you have to do it,” he told Mr. Carney.
Not only did he do it, but Mr. Carney raised over $1 million for the Wounded Warrior Project in 2004. In 2005, he repeated the ride and was joined for three-quarters of his journey by Staff Sergeants Heath Calhoun and Ryan Kelly, both Iraq veterans. “They went riding with us with one leg between them in the mountains in Colorado,” Mr. Kraus said. “We thought it shouldn’t be a bartender riding across the country, but it should be warriors.”
Now there are approximately 12 rides a year. Warriors participating in the New York rides came from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and from the United Kingdom and Israel. Soldier Ride is working on a United Kingdom-Normandy trip in October, and rides in London and Israel after that, and plans to send about 15 wounded veterans to each event.
The Rock the Farm benefit, which began five years ago as a charity gig played by a local band, the Giving Tree, and has since morphed into a much larger event, and helps make this and other facets of the Wounded Warrior project possible. “We started with 200 people the first year, and it has continued to amplify ever since,” said Rob Kaimowitz, founder of Rock the Farm.
This year Toots and the Maytals were the headliners, along with Born Again Baldwins, Rebecca Havilind, and a surprise guest, Chris Barron from the Spin Doctors. “We’re getting bigger each year,” Mr. Kaimowitz said.
The behind-the-scenes work has expanded, as well. There were nine different committees with 40 people involved in planning the Soldier Ride this year, said Mr. Honerkamp.
The Wounded Warrior project provides many opportunities for veterans beyond what the Department of Veterans Affairs can offer. “It’s a good thing to empower the wounded warriors to empower themselves,” Mr. Honerkamp said. “I’m of the Vietnam era, and we didn’t treat our veterans well. We do it differently now. They’re well adjusted, they’re carrying on normal lives.”
Project Odyssey, which offers outdoor retreats where veterans discuss and learn to cope with post-traumatic stress, helps them do exactly that. It was a pivotal experience for Marine Lance Cpl. Nancy Schiliro, who said the project saved her life. The Westchester native, 31, was injured during an explosion in Al Alasad, Iraq. “I was thrown and my head was hit,” she said.
In 2006 she received an honorable discharge, having lost her right eye as a result of the attack. Following an operation in 2005 when her eye was removed, Corporal Schiliro said her life was in a downward spiral until she connected with the Veteran Center in White Plains, and was then introduced to the Wounded Warrior project in 2008.
“I had post-traumatic stress, disfigurement to my face,” she said. “My family and I went through a horrible struggle. I didn’t know how to get out of the funk I was in. I wasn’t working, I wasn’t doing much,” Lance Cpl. Schiliro said.
Surrounded at a Project Odyssey retreat by 12 other women in similar circumstances, she realized she “wasn’t the only one dealing with this,” she said. “It was my ah-ha moment.” She ended up working as a coordinator for Project Odyssey for three years, and is now an outreach coordinator. “My goal is not to let anyone go through what I’ve gone through,” she said.
Corporal Schiliro has done the Soldier Ride for three years and was the only wounded female veteran on this run. She has a prosthetic eye, so people can’t tell she was wounded unless they know. “We’re focusing on the wounds that people don’t see,” she said. “It’s hard because I’m a female, and I have hidden scars.”
“When you think of a soldier you think of some brawny guy standing wearing green, but what you don’t see is a female standing behind him wearing pink. I think Americans forget that women are part of this war. We have to bring awareness that females are injured as well, not just physically but emotionally.”
Joshua Craven, a 23-year-old Army specialist originally from Asheboro, N.C., completed all three rides last week. “It was challenging, fun, and exhausting,” he said. A driver in a convoy in Najaf, Iraq, when a roadside explosive went off on Aug. 4, 2010 — his second wedding anniversary — he lost his left leg above the knee, and while his right limb was salvaged, he has no feeling below the knee. “It hurts when I walk a lot. They reconnected the nerve, and I have a lot of nerve damage,” he explained.
The only person hurt in his group, the weapon at his side stopped the explosive projectile from reaching his passenger. He was in cardiac arrest for five minutes and was on life support at Walter Reed, where he has made a steady recovery.
His occupational therapist there introduced him to the Wounded Warrior project. “It means a lot for us to learn to ride a bike again, and all of this support means a lot,” he said.
“I was on a bike for the New York City ride, but I cracked the socket to my prosthetic right before the Brooklyn Bridge. My leg was strapped in, but I couldn’t feel it and I kept falling off the bike,” he said. On the next two rides he used a hand cycle.
While he has come a long way, Specialist Craven has had many obstacles to overcome. “I couldn’t be around people or loud noises. It’s overwhelming sometimes; you don’t feel like you have a transition,” he said. He likes to wear jeans, which provide a sense of normalcy and also keep people from looking at him. “I’m going to get a shirt that says, ‘If you stare long enough, it’ll grow back,’ ” he joked. He will start college next week, and said he doesn’t plan to miss any future anniversaries.
Private Ryan Hewitt, 19, of Manchester in the United Kingdom, became a double amputee after an improvised explosive device in an alley went off in front of him last July in Sangin, Afghanistan, Helmand Province. Out of 12 men, he was the second one in line and the only one severely injured. “A year has gone by and I’m walking again, I’m nearly running again,” he said.
He has hand-biked 350 miles from Normandy to Paris for Help for Heroes, a British equivalent to the Wounded Warrior project. “It makes me feel good, it makes me set goals in life to achieve things,” he said. He is training for the Paralympics. Riding has “built my confidence up; it’s made me socialize more, and makes me feel better.”