On Thursday Jan. 5, 32 disabled veterans sped through the streets of Miami during the 12th-Annual Soldier Ride, according to the Miami Herald. The Wounded Warrior Project hosts the four-day event, which allows former service members to explore a large swath of Southern Florida via bicycle. Along the way, participants break at scheduled stops, including the Miami zoological park Jungle Island and the Truman Little White House, a vacation home located in Key West that regularly hosted President Harry S. Truman.
"This program forces us to push our limits, to get ourselves out there," Kevin Matos, an Army National Guard veteran participating in the event, told the newspaper. "We suffer from social anxieties and it is really uplifting to be able to undergo this struggle with people who are like us."
Get rolling again
The first Soldier Ride took place in 2004 and included a single rider, Amagansett, New York, bartender Chris Carney. With encouragement from friends and family, Carney set out to raise money for veterans by completing a 4,000-mile, coast-to-coast bike ride. The New York native successfully raised more than $1 million for the Wounded Warrior Project. One year later, two veterans – retired Army Staff Sergeant Heath Calhoun and Army Reserve Staff Sergeant Ryan Kelly, both of whom suffered catastrophic lower-leg injuries during Operation Iraqi Freedom – joined Carney on a 4,200-mile ride from Long Island to San Diego. The event not only inspired a feature-length documentary but also led the Wounded Warrior Project to establish an annual bike outing based on the trek.
Now, cities across the country host these events, many of which draw immense crowds and important attendees. President Barack Obama has attended every Washington, D.C., Soldier Ride since he took office in 2009. In April of last year, he kicked off the journey with prepared remarks and one piercing ring from an air horn, according to the White House.
"You represent what's best about our nation, and I hope all of the American people along the route will come out and show their support for these heroes, not just today but every single day," he told the 65 participants.
Cycling through South Florida
While the Miami event lacked a presidential appearance, many locals came out to cheer on the riders, several of whom rode custom-made bicycles designed for physically disabled veterans. Most of the rigs were constructed days prior to the Thursday kickoff, local news station WSVN reported. Workers from the Wounded Warriors Project and volunteers assembled the bikes, some of which featured hand-powered gears for cyclers with missing limbs. Those participating in the race voiced their appreciation for the bikes, which were ready to go just in time for the start.
"Yeah, I didn't have to do any adjustments, which is actually kind of amazing," Air Force veteran and Soldier Ride participant Kyle Cook told the news station.
The veterans involved with the event wait in anticipation throughout the year, as the four-day sojourn gives them the unique opportunity to stretch their muscles, see the sights, connect with fellow service members and bolster their self-confidence in the face of immense challenges, NBC Miami reported.
"When you go through severe trauma you need to be reminded that you have the ability to do whatever you want, no matter what your injury is, whether it's physical or mental you can overcome anything," Air Force veteran Sebastiana Lopez-Arelano told NBC Miami.
With solid funding and a strong reputation among former service members, Soldier Rides will continue to bring veterans and their supporters together for the foreseeable future in Miami and cities throughout the U.S.