Soldier Ride makes its way through Coronado

“The mission of Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) is to honor and empower Wounded Warriors. WWP’s purpose is to raise awareness and to enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured servicemen and women aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs.”

One of the programs WWP offers is Soldier Ride, which started in 2004 when civilian Chris Carney and a couple of his friends decided they wanted to help injured veterans. They agreed that Chris would ride his bike across the country, with his friends driving the support van. The first year Chris cycled over 5,000 miles in support of WWP. Carney repeated the event in 2005, this time with combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Soldier Ride is a three day event that gathers Wounded Warriors from across the country to share the experience. In San Diego, the event started March 13 at the Hilton Harbor Island with a bike fitting for the participating warriors. The actual ride began at 9:30 a.m. Friday, March 14, at Tidelands Park. The group was led in pre-ride stretches by Julia Valentour, regional health and wellness coordinator for WWP, and then sprayed with sunscreen.

The riders travelled under the bridge and followed the bike path down the strand to the Coronado Cays Fire House where they were welcomed by members of the fire department and a local family who passed out orange slices, water and Gatorade for a mid-ride “re-fueling”.

A large flag flapped in the breeze from the ladder of the station’s fire truck. The cyclists were able to stop and take a break from the ride, gather and talk with the fire fighters and each other, and hydrate and reenergize before riding back to Tidelands Park. The overall event continued with paddle boarding Friday and then another ride Saturday, March 15, at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.

Soldier Ride is not a race, but an opportunity for our nation’s wounded warriors to have a positive, physical, empowering outlet amongst others who may relate to similar challenges. It is a chance for the public to honor these men and women by lining the course and providing cheers of encouragement and thanks. It is an event that offers our wounded warriors, who may be struggling with recovery from combat related injuries, a supportive and fun environment that is safe; an environment of camaraderie, understanding, gratitude and even admiration.

Participating in Soldier Ride provides not only an introduction to cycling, but to health and wellness in general. It opens the door for participation in cycling or other sports. The most valuable asset to doing Soldier Ride, according to one rider, is the peer encouragement and the fact that it’s a safe environment in which to try something new. It may also be a stepping stone to other opportunities. If the participant catches the cycling bug, they may take part in a challenge ride.I was lucky to meet Joe, a Soldier Ride alum and peer mentor for WWP. The health and wellness office in San Diego rented a bike for Joe in 2012 and he did his first Soldier Ride in the spring of 2013. He took to cycling and got to ride in the United Kingdom Challenge Ride with 14 other American riders and 15 Brits. He said, simply, that it was “amazing!” He enjoys being a peer mentor because it has allowed him to grow and return to his peers.

Coronado residents Kevin, Blanca, Sophia, Steven and Kyle Shaeffer helped at the Cays refueling station.

Fire Chief Mike Blood poses with some of his staff, WWP staff member and a Soldier Ride participant.

Soldier Ride is sponsored by Geico and supported across the country by U-HAUL, a founding partner of WWP and Trek. The San Diego Soldier Ride 2014 was the first ride for nearly all of the participants. Often there may be WWP alumni who have ridden before, but the program is becoming so popular, that space is sometimes limited to first timers.

WWP Alumnus Lisa Hernandez was one such first timer. Originally from Chicago, IL, Lisa joined the U.S. Navy is 2008. She did a tour at the hospital in Camp Pendleton and one with the U.S. Army and 30th Medical Brigade from 2009-2010 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. One of nine children of U.S. immigrants who brought their family here in search of better opportunities for their children, Hernandez joined the military as her “way of giving back to the country that provided [me] with an education.” She has a nursing degree and a master’s degree. All of her siblings have also earned higher education degrees.
Lisa was thrown from an ambulance, sustaining injuries to her back and neck. She also suffers from PTSD. Her usual method of dealing with her injuries is to stay home, isolated and mostly alone. She has a veteran friend who has also battled severe post-traumatic stress. He became actively involved with WWP and Lisa witnessed his transformation and healing process and decided that if it worked for her friend, she should give it a try. She accepted an invitation from WWP to attend a Luke Bryan concert. Though Lisa was intimidated by the large crowd and loud noise, she stayed for the entire event. This soldier ride was part of the plan to continue doing things that challenge her to move out of her comfort zone. Lisa told me that the ride was “invigorating!” “I feel really good I came out. Any Wounded Warrior should do it. It’s a life changing experience.”

Soldier Ride participants Lynn Oschmann, Melannie Lovercheck and Lisa Hernandez.

Melannie also participated in the ride. She lost a good friend in 2005. She said, “He can’t ride, so I will. It’s nice to get out and be around people. I usually don’t.” She rides for the memory of Lt. Aaron N. Seesan, U.S. Army, who gave the ultimate sacrifice May 22, 2005, at the young age of 24.

I didn't get to talk to this rider but really wanted to know the story behind the socks.

Michael Patrick completed the ride and said “it changed the perspective on things I can do.” Tim McDonough added that it was “Awesome! Very empowering.”

Michael Patrick with his service dog Chief and Tim McDonough with his service dog Bailey.

Not everyone at the event was a rider. Rich, Jack, Brennan and George are all members of the FDNY retirees of San Diego group. There are about 12 really active members with around 25 total members, all retirees of the Fire Department of New York (except George, who was a Camp Pendleton fire fighter and was "adopted" by the FDNY retirees).  The men were present to offer support and also provided some of the supplies for the water/refueling station at the half way point. Brennan explained, “We were there the first day and they have been there ever since. It’s a natural progression to help out wherever we can.” The FDNY retirees host a dinner for the participants the last night of soldier ride. Usually at the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Museum, this year’s event was moved to the National City Firehouse due to St. Paddy’s day activities.

FDNY Retirees of San Diego Jack, Brennan, George and Rich

Soldier Ride is an amazing experience. In some cases, it is people helping people find themselves. “None of us will ever be the same person we were before," said one rider, but we agreed that this event and others like it are imperative to helping find a different self, a new self and definitely a changed self.

Thank you to all the staff of WWP and Soldier Ride who made this possible. Thank you to all the participants for your inspiration, your willingness to let me tell your story and your service.  A very special thank you to Nick Kraus for inviting me to come along on the ride.  Nick is more involved than he would ever let you know and takes far less credit than is probably deserved.

For more information about Wounded Warrior project or to make a tax deductible donation, click here.


Kellee Hearther

Staff Writer

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Tags: business, community, military, people

Comment by lisa on March 18, 2014 at 10:38pm

We saw them going by near Glorietta Blvd.  Very inspirational.  Great story and photos!  

Comment by Toni Mc Gowan on March 24, 2014 at 9:00pm
Third and Fourth streets Avenue of Heroes welcomed the riders. Thanks for posting this. Posting on FB page for TAF members to enjoy. The firefighters were great. They brought lots of healthy refreshments.

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