The 10th anniversary of Soldier Ride, the cycling and rehabilitative event benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project, will be marked tomorrow at 8 p.m. with a screening of “Welcome to Soldier Ride,” a film documenting its origin and inaugural cross-country ride, at Amagansett Square.
On Saturday, a 30-mile ride in honor of Lance Cpl. Jordan C. Haerter, a Sag Harbor resident who was killed in Iraq at the age of 19, will depart from Ocean View Farm in Amagansett. The 9 a.m. ride will follow an opening ceremony at 8:30. A community picnic will be held at the farm at noon.
Five-kilometer fund-raising walks will also happen on Saturday morning in Amagansett, from Ocean View Farm, and Sag Harbor, starting at Marine Park. Participants can register for the ride or walks at soldierride.com/thehamptons.
The Wounded Warrior Project helps injured veterans recover and readjust to civilian life. Interactive programs, rehabilitative retreats, peer support, and professional, educational, and employment assistance services are among the programs it offers.
Soldier Ride was conceived late one night at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, “after too many cocktails,” said Chris Carney, a former employee of the bar and nightclub. In a forthcoming oral history of that storied venue, he and other participants recall how an offhand comment gave rise to an event that has raised millions for the Wounded Warrior Project, propelling that one-man venture to the nation’s top veterans’ care organization.
Mr. Carney, who owns Railroad Avenue Fitness in East Hampton, was working as a bartender at the Talkhouse when Peter Honerkamp, one of its owners, organized a fund-raiser for John Fernandez, Ian Lennon, and Hector Delgado, Long Island residents who had been wounded in Iraq. “We raised a little bit of money,” Mr. Carney said, “but there was overhead.”
“We raised a good amount of money for them and their families,” said Tek Vakaloloma, a native of New Zealand who works at the Talkhouse. “But because of the number of people, we had to do it at the Patchogue Theater.”
“It wasn’t selling very well,” remembered Nick Kraus, a promoter at the Talkhouse. “For all the work we were putting into it, the payoff was going to be minor, especially split between three wounded warriors. That’s when Chris came up with the idea.”
After the concert, said Mr. Carney, “We were sitting around late at night. The week before, I had done a multiple sclerosis ride in the city where they had thousands of people do a 60-mile ride. I said, ‘What if, instead of having thousands of riders do a short distance, one rider goes thousands of miles, and see if we can get the same type of sponsorship?’ I thought it was a far-fetched idea that would be laughed at and quickly dismissed. But Peter said, ‘Wait a second, that could work.’ He actually took me up on it.”
A donation jar was put at the Talkhouse entrance, and the money needed to meet the expenses of the cross-country trip was quickly realized. “It was kind of scary,” said Mr. Carney, “because it went from being an idea to something I actually had to do.”
John Melia, said Mr. Honerkamp, was a Green Beret who was in a helicopter that caught fire and exploded over the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia in 1992. “Four of his friends were killed,” he said, “and he was one of 14 wounded, suffering burns over 20 percent of his body.”
Mr. Melia, said Mr. Carney, “had a $10,000-a-year budget and a one-room office in Roanoke, Va.” He made regular visits to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., where he would distribute backpacks filled with “comfort items — stuff he wished he would have had when he was hurt. A pair of shorts, T-shirt, sweatpants — the most luxurious thing you would find would probably be an old-school Walkman. That was the Wounded Warrior Project.”
Mr. Fernandez, said Mr. Carney, had suggested the Wounded Warrior Project as Soldier Ride’s beneficiary. “We got in touch with [Mr. Melia] and he invited us down to Walter Reed,” he said. “We got to follow him around while he handed out backpacks.”
“As soon as the elevator doors opened, my heart dropped to my stomach. We were surprised that we got invited, just from having this idea at 4 a.m. at the Talkhouse. Suddenly I was being let into Walter Reed, walking past generals and into rooms of kids that were 18, 19 years old and had lost their legs. The gravity and seriousness of where we were was such a sledgehammer. We became galvanized, and there was no turning back.”
What struck him the most, Mr. Kraus said of that visit, “was that everybody’s attitude was just so positive. People were thanking us for coming to see them, and we hadn’t even done anything, except one little fund-raiser and a couple thousand dollars. They were just appreciative that we were there, thanking us for organizing this bicycle ride.”
Mr. Carney, with Mr. Vakaloloma driving a support vehicle, made the trip from Montauk to San Diego, logging more than 5,000 miles and raising more than $1 million. Suddenly, Mr. Melia had the resources to accomplish so much more.
At various points, Mr. Carney said, Mr. Melia arranged to have a wounded soldier join him for a weekend to maintain the media’s interest and, he said, “to keep up my morale and remind me why I was doing it.” In Colorado, Heath Calhoun, a double-leg amputee, and Ryan Kelley, a single-leg amputee, rode with him, the former using a prosthetic limb and the latter riding a hand cycle.
“As I kept riding toward San Diego, they got to talking,” Mr. Carney said. “They joined me in San Diego and asked if I’d be interested in doing a ride going back the other way — they wanted to do the whole ride.” The occupational therapist at Walter Reed, he said, began sending wounded soldiers to participate in the ride. “By the time it finished, we had ridden with over 35 soldiers.”
“We slowly realized the power it had as a rehabilitative event. For a lot of the guys, everything takes longer in the slow-motion world of having an injury: getting dressed, taking a shower, eating. You get on a bike and go down a hill and the wind is in your face, and you have a little bit of that feeling like you were 12 years old again. To drag these guys through back roads and everywhere else and make them sweat, and just to make fun of each other, have a good, hard day on the road and a couple beers and some pizza at the end of the day in a hotel room was nice, it was bonding for everyone. We realized the power of that.”
The cross-country ride was repeated in 2005, and shorter-distance Soldier Rides are now organized throughout the continental U.S. and have taken place in Hawaii, Germany, England, and Israel. Soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who were wounded during military duty will participate in Saturday’s ride. They will be brought to New York by Friends of the IDF, which is partnering with the Wounded Warrior Project for the occasion.
“It’s pretty amazing to see where it’s gone,” said Mr. Kraus. “It’s really changed the way everybody looks at rehabilitation, how the American public can look at how we treat our vets.”
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Mr. Vakaloloma said of the experience. “It was one of the pinnacle things in my life that I knew I’d never forget.”