Veterans build new ties through Soldier Ride
Veterans who’d never met gathered the weekend of Feb. 9 for Soldier Ride, an event sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project. On Feb. 7, these servicemen and women were outfitted with special bicycles. By Feb. 8, they were laughing and grousing over the “drill sergeant” who made them do warmups before hitting the road.
Alex Espinosa is a Camp Pendleton Marine who lives in Fallbrook. He was suited up for the ride in spite of threatening rain and blustery wind.
“We just met yesterday and we’re already like a big family; the camaraderie is everything,” he said.
Espinosa, who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and put 14 years into the Marines, said he wasn’t ready for the medical discharge he got when he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer simultaneously. He also didn’t think he qualified for the Wounded Warrior Project because his wounds are invisible.
“It (PTSD) made me a very cautious and secluded person,” he said. “I couldn’t stand loud noises.”
Through the Wounded Warrior Project, Espinosa made new friends from all branches of the military and found they shared similar problems. Through them, he learned about techniques to ground himself when encountering difficult situations.
“I wasn’t aware of that before; I didn’t know they existed,” he said.
Espinosa stays in touch with friends and staff through email, phone calls and in person through other athletic events. He joins other warriors in a monthly 5K run.
“No matter how I feel or what’s going on, I go. I start it and I finish it, with the help of the staff and my fellow warriors,” he said.
Soldier Ride started in 2004 in support of the Wounded Warrior Project when three friends – Chris Carney, Peter Hornerkamp and Nick Kraus – cycled across the country to raise money and awareness for the plight of returning service members. Veterans joined them the following year. Soldier Ride is now an official part of the Wounded Warrior Project.
The project has 18 programs, according to Kraus.
“It’s not just cycling events or about riding a bike. It’s about going out and doing the things you used to do even though you have to do them differently,” Kraus said.
The goal is to “empower recent veterans and make them the most well-adjusted in our nation’s history,” according to Dan Schnock, spokesman for the project.
The mission of the Wounded Warrior Project is to rehabilitate the mind, body and spirit of veterans and empower them with economic security by matching them up with corporate jobs.
In 2011, they placed 500 veterans in corporate careers. This year, the goal is 1,000 placements.
Civilians can help in several ways. One is to donate money to project. On a more personal level, people can just be more respectful.
Espinosa said strangers are often inappropriate in their reactions toward wounded veterans, saying things such as, “Oooh, I feel so sorry for you.”
He said they appreciate a respectful “thank you,” but other than that, the best way to treat a wounded veteran is the same way you’d treat anyone else – like a human being.
“We don’t want pity,” Espinosa said. “We want support. We did what we had to do and if we had the chance we’d do it all over again.”
To learn more about the Wounded Warrior Project, go to www.woundedwarriorproject.org.
Helen Hawes is a North County freelance writer