17 August, 2006

Soldier Ride

On July 29 I had the privilege of attending the closing events for the cross-country bicycling trip sponsored by Soldier Ride at San Clemente Beach in California.

Soldier Ride sponsors adaptive cycling events for wounded military personnel, especially amputees. They conduct clinics and short rides to help recovering wounded, as well as longer rides for those further along in their healing. The amputees ride regular or special reclining cycles, depending on their needs. Participants report that it is an empowering experience, and that it's very motivational for their recovery. They also said that the events held in each major city they passed through on the cross-country trip helped them realize they were loved and appreciated.

The event on July 29 was a celebration of the completion of a coast-to-coast bicycling ride by wounded and non-wounded personnel that raised money for the Soldier Ride organization, including a ceremony and a beach party. There was a band, BBQ, and a Soldiers' Angels booth where people could purchase memorabilia or write letters to deployed personnel. Members of Patriot Guard Riders, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Military Order of the Purple Heart also attended to honor the cyclists.

As the day developed, I found I wasn't as emotional as I expected to be. But soon we saw the local police escort followed by the Patriot Guard bikers. My heart swelled a little at the thought of what the Patriot Guard has done to protect the families of the fallen from rude and cruel protestors at funerals, and I was so thrilled to dicover they had accompanied the cyclists throughout their ride.

At this point the cyclists were a bit behind. Then they turned the corner and I suddenly saw them in their shiny bikes and bright outfits. We lined the road, cheering as they came down the hill to the beach. It was great to see their joy and confidence. I saw several using the reclining bikes and was impressed with their skills.

But then I saw a soldier without an arm. And I went from happy and proud to emotional overload in a hearbeat. The tears poured out and I ran for the parking lot behind me where I could have some privacy. In that moment I realized that what I was witnessing was the other end of Valour-IT. Valour-IT focuses on getting laptops to them when they are first reeling from their wounds, shows them that they are still functional and connected despite the loss of a hand/arm. But Valour-IT is just the beginning; Soldier Ride is showing them they can still do amazing things, that the whole world is still open to them. Something like Soldier Ride is the kind of thing we dream for them when we first give them that laptop and show them their lives are not over. It was powerful. My chest felt tight and it seemed as if someone had reached in and grabbed my heart.

By the time I'd pulled myself together, they were down on the beach. I turned and walked along the cliffs above and watched as they tumbled into the water like playful puppies. They literally rode their bikes right into the surf and jumped or fell off into the waves with shouts of exultation. Loved ones joined them and embraced them or rolled with them in the surf. I watched a double leg amputee sit in the surf and simply grin before trying his hand at swimming a few strokes. His obvious freedom in the water was poignant, but their joyful exuberance was clear.

The band played "What a Wonderful World" and I stood on the cliff with tears rolling down as the onshore wind made them feel cold on my cheeks. Such a strange combination of joy and sadness: thrilled to see genuine joy and pride in those who have over come so much, wishing that we could help all the wounded vets discover how to win the horrible hand they'd been dealt... the horrors of war and knowing that sadly not all will figure out how to win with their new burdens...

I finally dried my tears and walked down to the beach as the riders were getting out of the water. The bonds were obvious as the more able-bodied riders helped their brothers get seated in wheelchairs or find a place to sit and reattach their prosthetics. One young wife literally carried her husband on her back. He had lost one leg at the upper thigh and the opposite arm above the elbow so he didn't have the balance to hop up the beach as many of the amputees did, and the sand was too deep for a wheelchair. So she carried him on her back with a dignity and love that even the tough old Patriot Guard bikers remarked on with awe.

It was somehow a cross between comedy and sacrament. On one hand there were all these bodies moving in strange ways we don't normally see. But on the other, that didn't matter one bit and the bonds between all involved were as real as if a ribbon stretched between them. The acceptance in the air was palpable. There were people hopping around or strapping on prosthetics or carrying each other in ways that I suppose should've been off-putting or demeaning. But they weren't--for them and their loved ones and most of the crowd, it was just a part of life. Help was matter-of-factly offered where needed, but their independence and self-confidence was obvious. And in the middle, such joy and pride at such amazing achievement. Such a poignant mix of beauty and pain and the triumph of human spirit--both wounded and loved ones.

[Picture by Da Goddess, who files her report here]

The Patriot Guard asked everyone to back up and give them some privacy. And so we did, heading up the hill to the ceremony.

Part II: The brotherhood and the bigwigs. And I'll tell you all about the guy hitching a ride in the pic above.