The Wounded Warrior cyclists take advantage of the road closures during the Washington, D.C., Soldier Ride.
THE POLITICS OF WAR ARE always fleeting and impossible to quantify, but the sacrifices are aggressively real. There is no irony in retired Army Staff Sergeant Kenny Butler’s prosthetic arm, which was designed to hold a gun, but which Butler, 29, an aspiring bicycle racer, realized could also perfectly grip the handlebar of his custom Trek road bike.
Improvements in body armor, battlefield medical technology, and the transportation of the wounded to hospitals have significantly reduced the risk of death from serious injury that troops fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan face. And now, thanks to organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project, veterans are getting help learning to live with traumatic wounds.
The Wounded Warrior Project was created on a shoestring budget in 2003 when a group of veterans began delivering backpacks filled with items designed to comfort the wounded to the hospital beds of injured soldiers. Packed with CD players, calling cards, and clothing, these bags are still the way most injured vets discover the program.
“Other veterans groups say they’ll help with your benefits claims, they’ll lobby for you,” Kinard says. “[But] these guys are in the hospital. They’re there telling you they care, that you’re part of the family.”
The organization has grown into an ¬efficient $40 million–a-year one-stop service agency for disabled troops transitioning to civilian life, explains Woody Groton, Soldier Ride national tour director and a former Army major. Soldier Ride, which will hold a dozen events this year, is only one part of the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project, which is charged with tackling everything from helping troops cope with post-traumatic stress disorder to teaching them computing skills. For example, other components include the Warriors to Work program, which offers career services for veterans, many of whom are entering the civilian workforce for the first time, and TRACK (Training Rehabilitation Advocacy Center), which sends returning soldiers as a group in a supportive environment to a community college in Jacksonville, Florida, and provides them with computers, books, and living expenses for a year, while providing rehabilitative care for the mind, body, and spirit. The Wounded Warrior Project also includes programs offering family counseling and outdoor activities, both of which help prove to the veterans that life will continue and will be enjoyed.
“All of a sudden, you were doing a job, and you are no longer able to do the job you signed up to do,” Groton says. “It can make you [go crazy]. But the Wounded Warrior Project forces these people to go out and ride or do something challenging, and it can pretty much turn their lives around.”
The cliché about the ease with which people can get back on a bicycle does not pertain here. Getting on a bike again is a monumental challenge for the soldiers ¬involved in the Wounded Warrior Project, and conquering the first 25 miles is far from their ultimate goal.
In April 2004, retired Army First Lieutenant Melissa Stockwell was the first woman to be injured by an IED in Iraq. She lost her left leg while on patrol in Baghdad and once stateside, she was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she found a Wounded Warrior backpack on her bed. After three months of inpatient treatment and an additional nine months of physical therapy, the athlete in her was eager to come out again.
“You don’t know what you’ll be able to do, so it’s pretty nerve-racking at first,” she says. “A lot of these soldiers never thought they’d ride a bike again, so talk about empowering. … [And] it carries over to all other aspects of life.”
Stockwell, 29, is now a resident prosthetic practitioner, fitting other amputees with artificial limbs. She is an avid skier, a competitive swimmer, and a triathlete. Although she does most of her riding on a standard bicycle, she pumps through Annapolis at the head of the pack on a hand cycle. Having recently completed a six-day, 267-mile race in Alaska, she’s currently training for several upcoming triathlons.
“There are 43 soldiers on this ride, and all of us have been through similar traumatic circumstances,” she says. “We can draw from that, and it pushes us on.”