Part I: Tears and smiles and the amazing cyclists
The soldiers were definitely the stars of the day at the event, but there were also a number of dignitaries. I had lunch with the Chief of Staff for Camp Pendleton, the mayor of San Clemente, Patti Bader and other Soldiers' Angels leadership, and the kid of a famous classic movie star (Da Goddess was much more star-struck about that than I was). There were also a number of the leadership and general membership of veterans organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and Military Order of the Purple Heart in attendance at the Soldier Ride event. Yeah I was way outta my league, but it was great to see the kind of support there was.
There had been a lot of buzz about the fact that Matthew Modine was going to be attending. That name rang a bell for me, but I didn't really pay much attention to it (Patti told me he was a movie actor). When Da Goddess and I were walking up the hill to the ceremony after the riders arrived, she nudged me and pointed to the tall, thin man walking alone in front of us with a towel around his waist. The ensuing conversation between the two of us wasn't overly loud, but I'm sure he heard every word. "Look, that's him," she said.
"Right in front of us!"
"Who's Matthew Modie?"
"The movie star." She about rolled her eyes at me.
I gave her a blank look for a moment. "Oh yeah, I heard he was supposed to be here. What movies should I know him from?"
Da Goddess rolled her eyes at me, "Like Full Metal Jacket, maybe?"
"Haven't you seen it?!"
"Just bits and pieces."
She told me what character he'd played and I know my response made it obvious that I didn't really know what she was talking about. I asked her why he had a towel around his waist and she reported that he'd ridden the last few legs of the trip with the soldiers, and so had been in the surf with them a few moments before. I then felt kinda guilty that Modine had probably heard our conversation, but I didn't think I'd been rude and I figured his celebrity ego would have to tough it out. However, by the end of the day I was totally impressed and had added Matthew Modine to the short list of celebrities who have my respect.
At the ceremony I snagged a seat as close to the front as I could get, across the aisle from the area set aside for the riders. The riders found their seats in dribs and drabs as well-wishers and friends came up to congratulate them while we waited for the program to start. The bigwigs came up to speak to them with obvious respect, and the bonds among the riders were vividly clear. Particularly telling was the reaction to Modine. He came walking down the aisle with bare feet and the towel still around his waist. As he made a move to sit with the rest of us, catcalls and shouts of "Get your scrawny ass over here with us!" erupted from the riders' section. When Modine looked puzzled, a soldier yelled, "Hell yes, you belong with us!"
Yes, that's Modine in the picture above. Notice that there is no chair behind him; he spent most of the ceremony squatting down and strongly resisted when someone tried to give him their chair. But the most amazing people are standing just to Modine's left. See how the man has his hand on the woman's shoulder? That's Cpt. Ryan Kules. He's holding onto his wife for balance because his left leg is missing at the top of the thigh. This is the couple I mentioned in Part I--the woman who carried her husband on her back up the beach at the end of the ride because he couldn't hop like the other leg amputees. A news article writes about Cpt. Kules' desire to participate [the entire article is great]:
"Kules lost an arm and a leg on either side," Nardizzi [Executive Director of Solider Ride] said. "This presents a challenge because usually you rig a bike for one injury or the other, not both.During the ceremony Soldier Ride participants were given individual plaques commemorating their efforts, and offered an opportunity to share their thoughts. One person who spoke was a Ukranian immigrant who had completed the entire cross-country distance. He was obviously considered a leader in the group and spoke eloquently about those who didn't survive the battlefield as he had. Others talked about their satisfaction in "serving you" and their appreciation for the support citizens showed at stops across the country.
"But Kules says, ‘Put me on a bike.’ So we did," he continued. "We consulted with the professionals, and we made one work and he can take it home."
By acclamation of the riders, Matthew Modine was asked to speak, though he was obviously uncomfortable with the idea. I snickered at the thought of an actor speaking without a script, but he spoke movingly of growing up as a patriotic American and reaching a whole new level of appreciation for the military after 9-11. He was neither condescending nor saccharine, but instead he so obviously related to those wounded warfighters as men he loved and deeply respected. I was very impressed with him.
Part III: The story of the man in the picture in Part I.