Every September, about 50 veterans descend upon our corner of the world for a three-day bike ride that includes stops in Cape Cod and Boston.
The amazing part of their time here is the fact that the bicyclists are all Wounded Warriors, former military personnel that have experienced serious injury during their service. Some are missing a limb – a hand, leg or arm – while others have suffered a traumatic brain injury or are coping with post-traumatic stress from the horrors of war.
They have numerous excuses not to ride. But they do.
They persevere. They fight.
The word “hero” is thrown around a lot in today’s society, but it’s given a real context when we have a chance to see those soldiers riding along our bike path in Falmouth or on our streets in Provincetown as complete strangers cheer them on.
These are inspiring moments that help put our own hardships into perspective. And often, we realize that the problems we face are not so big in the grand scheme of things.
The best part of seeing these riders is that it is a reminder of the sacrifices our men and women in the military make on a daily basis. Sometimes those sacrifices go largely unnoticed, but not when you see a warrior riding a bicycle that’s been adapted because they are missing a limb.
The event is as inspiring to them as it is to us. As Nick Schuman, an Air Force veteran who was injured while serving in Iraq in 2003, told CapeCod.com, “The community when you’re going by and they’re cheering you on, it’s such a big show, it just makes you proud and proud that you were able to serve your country and proud that so many people really appreciate you. It makes us feel good and we really appreciate everybody out there for us.”
September’s three-day bicycle excursion is not unique. The Wounded Warrior Project provides these types of experiences for veterans who have suffered life-altering injuries while serving their country.
This year, during the same month, a group of veterans had a chance to participate in a guided swim with whale sharks, manta rays and other sea life at the Georgia Aquarium. The warriors all said these outings are a necessary part of the healing process.
And that healing process is so important, especially for those who have experienced a physical, emotional and psychological pain that many of us will never fully understand.
That pain includes what Sgt. First Class Michael Schlitz endured in 2007 when his unit was hit by a roadside bomb while on tour in Iraq. He lost both hands and suffered burns over 85 percent of his body. “I was coming to terms with the fact that this was where I was going to die,” he said during a panel discussion as part of the Wounded Warrior Experience held at the Navy Memorial in Washington D.C. two years ago.
In the first four months after the incident, he underwent 30 surgeries and lost nearly a third of his body weight. He contemplated suicide after he was released from the hospital.
His attitude eventually changed after he received his first prosthetic, went home and fed himself. “Just that little bit of independence, that little bit of freedom was enough to say, ‘Okay, I have a fighting chance again,’” he said.
As we approach Veterans Day, we need to give all of our veterans returning from service a fighting chance. The Wounded Warrior Project and Heroes in Transition are two wonderful organizations you can support which do just that, showing our men and women in uniform compassion while providing them with a helping hand, especially for those who are struggling to acclimate back into society.