On paper the Wounded Warrior Soldier Ride is a straight course, a line on a map, for former soldiers to follow from point A to point B. Next weekend from Friday, Jan. 10 through Sunday, Jan. 12, a group of 50 soldiers and 30 support personnel will follow that line from Miami to Key West making various stops in the Florida Keys. But in reality, the journey is much more than a set number of miles or even transportation logistics.
“Some of these soldiers are right out of Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. where they were treated for battlefield wounds,” said Jerry Hughes. “It’s their first time out of the hospital and their first exposure to the public.”
Hughes is the chair of Soldier Ride 2014 for the Key West Chamber’s Military Affairs Committee. He is a former Green Beret and Vietnam combat infantry veteran. He is helping to organize the various events in the Lower Keys and he has counterparts in the Middle Keys and also in Key Largo.
“It’s like a welcome home party for these soldiers,” Hughes said. The public is encouraged to turn out at the “cheer stops” and also line the streets as the soldiers ride by. In addition to time spent in the saddle, the wounded warriors will spend time just enjoying the Keys — eating out at restaurants, fishing and snorkeling, and spending time with the Dolphin Research Center’s dolphins. That facility has been hosting this specific function since 2009.
“Their visit to Dolphin Research Center is about re-establishing the connection with the world that we need to have after we go through war,” said Mandy Rodriguez, also a former U.S. Marine with combat in Vietnam. “At the DRC, that connection happens easier and faster. It’s not that the dolphins are magic, but dolphins, like all animals, never ask for anything in return. Plus, the soliders get the outdoors, and the ocean and the sunshine. All that contributes to a wonderful trip.”
The Dolphin Research Center, and Joan Mehew specifically, were honored in 2013 with a special award by the Wounded Warriors called the Carry Forward. One of five honorees nationwide, Mehew traveled to Los Angeles to receive the award.
“The Soldier Ride starts the healing quickly. It anchors what they are doing as they are re-entering civilian life. I hear stories back all the time of our visitors that have the picture in a frame on the mantel back home,” Mehew said. “And I have had staff members come to me and say, ‘I feel as if my heart swelled when I do this.’ It’s a lovely way of welcoming them home.”
The 2014 Soldier Ride starts in the Upper Keys on Friday, Jan. 10 and continues to the Middle Keys. On Saturday, Jan. 11 the warriors enjoy Key West and on Sunday, Jan. 12 they regroup for a community ride. On Sunday, members of the public are encouraged to donate $20 and ride their own bicycles alongside as the group visits various historic military sites in the Southernmost City. (For the full schedule, see sidebar.)
At every step of the way, business owners and members of local law enforcement agencies are there to pave the way. Support for the four-day cycling tour provides the soldiers with a unique opportunity to overcome physical, mental and emotional injuries. Many of the soldiers have suffered burns, amputations, brain injuries or are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Locals and visitors are encouraged to turn out at one of the cheer stops or find a spot alongside the highway to cheer the soldiers.
“I want to say how proud I am of our nation for having learned how to welcome our heroes home from war,” Rodriguez said. “It’s so different for this generation of soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq than what the soldiers of my generation experienced returning home from Vietnam.”
Friday, Jan. 10
• 8:30 a.m. start at the VFW Upper Keys Post 10211, MM 102.
• 9:30 a.m. cheer stop at Coral Shores High School, MM 89.
• 11:45 a.m. soldiers arrive at Marathon Fire Station (MM 52) at 11:45 a.m. and cycle over 7 Mile Bridge.
• 2 p.m. soldiers arrive at Dolphin Research Center, MM 58.
Sunday, Jan. 12
• 10:30 a.m. soldiers depart NAS Key West (MM 8) and ride south to Key West.
• noon ceremony at the Truman Annex Mole (west end of Southard Street).
• 1 p.m. community ride along through Key West: South Roosevelt, Bertha Street, White Street, Eaton Street, Simonton Street, Front Street and Duval Street.
• 2:30 p.m. ride along ends at Mallory Square (Wall Street).
All photo credits