On a Saturday smack in the height of a hot, hectic, summer season, traffic will come to a halt to make way for a bicycle brigade of more than 50 wounded soldiers from the United States and United Kingdom along with hundreds of their supporters. That’s the way it should be, according to Soldier Ride organizers and participants, who will celebrate the now-international charity ride’s 10th year on July 20.
Chris Carney reminisced on Tuesday about the ride’s first year, which happened, he said, on “a wing and a prayer,” when he was a bartender in Amagansett weak on cycling experience but with a strong desire to raise money for wounded veterans. He rode a bicycle from the East to West Coasts having no idea of how the ride would grow, that it would include wounded veterans alongside him, or how great the need to support them would continue to be.
“There are so many guys in need of it,” Mr. Carney said on Tuesday. The ride’s accomplishments, he said, are “bittersweet.”
“It is great to reach out to so many and be part of their recovery, but it is a never ending flow of those who need,” he said.
“I have seen what it can do right in front of me . . . to watch someone start smiling again and feel that they could do anything again . . . and now it’s happening around the world,” said Nick Kraus, who worked with Mr. Carney at the Stephen Talkhouse when the ride was first conceived and has become deeply involved, too. “To be part of the beginning of something so big, it’s more that you can ask for.”
“Last week, for the first time we did two rides in two places at the same time,” Mr. Kraus said. This year’s rides still to come will include ones on the North Fork in September and in Germany, the U.K., Boston, and Cape Cod.
The Wounded Warrior Project, now the parent charity for the ride, is focusing on legislation, too, Mr. Carney said. A veterans insurance bill was recently passed and a caregiver bill is in the works, which will save the country money in the long run by allowing a severely injured veteran to be cared for at home instead of spending years in a government hospital.
Getting post traumatic stress disorder classified as a physical ailment is high on the agenda, too, Mr. Carney said, as it all too often contributes to the staggering suicide rates among those returning from combat.
When Mr. Carney exited the elevator at Walter Reed Hospital with Mr. Kraus, Reggie Cornelia, and Peter Honerkamp, an owner of the Stephen Talkhouse, in 2004, there was no looking back for any of them. “Kids younger than you thought could be in the Army walking with crutches and amputations. . . . It was so heavy we knew we had to succeed,” he said.
“Peter helped the idea become reality,” Mr. Carney said.
That trip “changed my life forever,” said Mr. Kraus. “I didn’t know that many in the military growing up in New York and in the Hamptons,” he said.
“Doctors started sending us recovering soldiers,” Mr. Carney said of the second ride. Around 40 veterans took part at different points of the ride, whether for a day, a weekend, or a week, realizing the rehabilitative effect it had.
It takes longer for them to do everything with amputations, but “on a bike, they can fly down a hill with wind in their hair as they did in their younger, carefree days,” Mr. Carney said. The sweat and hard work helped their physical and mental health, and so did bonding over beer and pizza in the hotel rooms, he said.
Mr. Carney credits those who helped get the ride off the ground, both South Fork and national supporters from both sides of the aisle. “Putting thoughts on the war aside was a necessity,” he said. “We worked hard to stay nonpolitical and balanced.” With supporters ranging from Alec Baldwin to Bill O’Reilly, it was necessary to separate feelings about the war from the need to help returning soldiers.
“Alec was one of the first,” said Mr. Carney, “he came through with a check early for us.” Mr. Baldwin also did some public service announcements. “That was big,” he said. He also credited Bob Dole and Tony Snow, a Fox News reporter whom he called his biggest supporter.
Many were determined not to let this generation of veterans have the same experience as those who returned from Vietnam. “It is nice to see those returning home being treated with respect, dignity, with honor,” said Mr. Kraus. “They serve without question of politics to allow us our freedoms.”
It couldn’t happen without all of the people that work behind the scenes, said Mr. Kraus, with organizing volunteers ranging from veterans and military families to Boy and Girl Scouts.
The Hamptons Soldier Ride has been undefeated as the top fund-raiser of all the rides to date. This year, however, Babylon Town’s ride was ahead as of Tuesday.
In addition to two walks, two rides, and an open-to-the-public barbecue this year, with more live music than ever. “All the guys love Rock the Farm at night,” said Mr. Kraus of the outdoor concert that follows in Amagansett. English Beat will headline the July 20 concert. Tickets can be purchased online via soldierride.org/thehamptons or at stephentalkhouse.com.
Those who want to join the ride can sign up on the Web site, where the route and ride details are posted. Mr. Kraus also urged those who don’t ride to “cheer people on, spread the word, wave a flag, or say thank you.”
Welcome Warrior lawn signs are available at the Stephen Talkhouse, too.
Getting wounded veterans on bikes in the communities they served is a “tremendous aspect of the whole event,” Mr. Carney said, “and letting people show their love to them.”