• Image about Andrew Kinard

Cyclists cross the seven-mile bridge on the way to Key West during the Sunshine State challenge.

AS THE DAY WEARS ON, the enthusiasm only grows. The mayor of Annapolis, Ellen O. Moyer, is on hand to thank the troops. A supporter and her son hand out dozens of sandwiches for lunch, and when we run out of food, others rush to the store to stock up on PowerBars.

“Thank you for your service,” rings out over and over.

On busy roads, police cars speed through traffic to get ahead of us to stop cars at the next intersection. When a hand cyclist struggles up a hill, bicyclists place their hands on his back to offer a gentle push.

The eclectic collection of vehicles masks the common goal of the riders. One vet, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury, shares a tricycle with his father. A blind soldier pedals a tandem bike with his friend, while his guide dog rides in the support van.

There are jocks, like Stockwell and Butler, who never break a sweat, but there are also riders who are testing out their mobility for the first time and can’t finish the ride.

Twenty-five miles isn’t a long distance. At a leisurely pace, most people can cover that ground by bike in less than three hours. But for those on the Soldier Ride, it is just a number on a randomly selected route where the ground covered isn’t important at all.

What is important, though, is when everyone cruises into downtown Annapolis together for a celebratory meal at Armadillo’s restaurant. Tourists checking out the Maryland Maritime Heritage Festival scream as if trying to grab the attention of a celebrity being hustled into a limousine.

As we all settle onto bar stools and into wheelchairs and booths, the vital aspect of the Soldier Ride becomes evident. Newbies still in awe of their accomplishments sidle up to the experienced riders, eager to talk about the ride, to again make real what only a few months earlier they never imagined could be possible.

“You get a good mix of the experienced and the beginners,” Groton says. “That’s where Soldier Ride becomes so valuable. The people who have recovered, both physically and mentally, can mentor the newly wounded and show them what they can achieve.”

Butler, who lost his arm to a roadside bomb in Baghdad, is not as sore as many of the people he spent the day riding with are. He is training to race and spends five days a week cycling through Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. Still, his accomplishments, and those of his fellow riders, are fresh in his mind.

“For me, it’s something I never thought I’d do again,” says Butler, who has just started his first year at Norwich University in Vermont. “With this opportunity, I can do a lot more than I imagined I could. I’m doing more sports now than I did before I was injured.”

Log on to www.woundedwarriorproject.org to learn more about Soldier Ride and the Wounded Warrior Project. And to read an equally inspiring piece about another soldier whose spirit couldn’t be broken, turn to page 108.