May 03, 2006
A few numbers tell quite a bit about Soldier Ride, a cross-country bike ride that raises money for programs for injured soldiers: 4000 miles and three months on the road on behalf of wounded veterans, who number 17,762 according to the latest numbers from the Department of Defense, 8137 of whom were not returned to action within 72 hours. Close to $5 million to help the injured readjust and rehabilitate after war injuries. Eighty-five injured veterans who are scheduled to participate in this year's ride.
But at the ground level, as the cyclists wind their way across the country, the numbers are less compelling than the realities. During the 2005 Soldier Ride, people in pick-up trucks would pull over, hand the group a $20 bill and say "'Thank you for protecting us,' and drive on," said Chris Carney, the founder of the ride and a resident of East Hampton.
In New Mexico, Carney said he "got chills" when a group of Navajo women offered their thanks and blessings to two injured soldiers who accompanied him on last year's trip, Ryan Kelly and Heath Calhoun, both of whom lost limbs fighting in Iraq. Carney, who is not a member of the military, made his first cross-country cycling trip in 2004, mounting a ride from Montauk to California to raise funds for the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that raises money for morale-building projects for soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past three years, "it has kind of evolved from a fundraiser to a rehabilitative event," Carney said.
The money raised by Soldier Ride is used to fund adaptive sports and recreation events while wounded soldiers are in rehabilitation. It provides comfort packs with clothes, CD players, and magazines to wounded soldiers at Veterans Affairs hospitals, and funds family assistance programs. A send-off for this year's participants will be held at Amagansett Legion Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday, the ride will officially begin with a Montauk Lighthouse kickoff at 8:30 a.m., followed by breakfast at 10 a.m. at Nichol's restaurant in East Hampton. It will finish in San Diego in July.
This year Carney will be accompanied for the entire trip by Staff Sergeant Yegor Bondarenko, an active duty member of the Army, pending clearance from the military. Carney said that Bondarenko had long thought of getting involved in an event such as Soldier Ride and "he basically volunteered all of his off-time in order to participate." At various points along the way, the two men will be joined by veterans of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in what has become "a powerful rehabilitative event," Carney said.
"To see how this directly benefits these guys" has been the most rewarding part of his participation in Soldier Ride, he added. Carney used a military expression to explain the reasons behind the ride: they are "throwing the ladder back over the wall" so that those on the other side, the newly injured, will have a place to begin, an example to follow. "We need to do everything we can to help these guys because we're the ones sending them over," he said.
Visit soldierride.org for more information.