By B.C. Manion
David Broome was just 19 when the Humvee he was driving rode over an improvised explosive device, causing a blast that forced him to spend months undergoing surgeries and recovering from shrapnel injuries.
John Kozlowski retired on medical leave last year from the Air Force, but hasn’t left his wartime experiences completely behind him. He constantly scans the roads, looking for things that, “now that I’m home, aren’t there.”
Both Land O’ Lakes men spent last Friday and Saturday among roughly 30 cyclists taking part in Soldier Ride, an event that brings together veterans wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Riders of all ability levels make the rounds on adaptive hand cycles, trikes, and bicycles.
The Tampa Bay area two-day ride covered 44 miles, starting with a 17-mile loop that began and ended at Fort De Soto Park in Tierre Verde on Friday and was followed by a 27-mile loop that began and ended at State College of Florida at Lakewood Ranch in Sarasota on Saturday.
In an interview last week, Broome was preparing to make his second Soldier Ride. He completed his first one in Boston last year. Broome, now 25, said he was inspired by the company he kept at the Boston ride, and was pleased to take part in another ride so close to home.
The 42-year-old Kozlowski – who served in the Air Force from 1987 until 2011 — was eager to board a trike to join Soldier Ride.
“I’m looking for ways to get more involved with people I share a common bond with,” Kozlowski said.
Sometimes his emotions overwhelm him, he said. “I go through bouts of severe depression where I just want to pick up and run away, leave friends, family, leave everybody behind,” he said.
Soldier Ride aims to help wounded warriors restore their physical and emotional well-being. It also seeks to raise awareness of wounded veterans, who still battle the physical and psychological damages of war.
The event dates back to 2004 when Chris Carney, a bartender from Long Island, decided to make a coast-to-coast bicycle ride to support the Wounded Warrior Project, said Nick Kraus, a co-founder of Soldier Ride.
During the trek, Carney met two injured warriors, Heath Calhoun and Ryan Kelly in Colorado, and they joined him on the ride, Kraus said.
“The only problem was that they only had one leg between the two of them,” recalled Kraus. “We found a handcycle and an adapted bike and they rode with us.
“And then Ryan and Heath decided they wanted to ride all of the way across the country like Chris did the next year, and they did, and they got Chris to do it again. Along the way, they were joined by other wounded warriors who heard about what they were doing,” Kraus said.
Over the years, the event has evolved.
“Now, it’s a rehabilitative program that takes place all across the United States and overseas, in Germany, England, France, Israel. We ride with their injured soldiers,” Kraus said.
The cyclists’ expenses are covered by the Wounded Warrior Project and its supporters, and donations are always welcome, Kraus said.
But Soldier Ride is not about raising money, he said.
“This is about these guys. It’s important to know what’s going on and the heavy price that these young men and women have paid,” Kraus said.
“It’s a way for people, either walking down the street or driving by, to give their thanks or appreciation for these wounded warriors,” he said. It also lets the wounded combat veterans “see that the American public cares about them,” he added.
Broome said the event gives veterans a chance to support one another.
It doesn’t matter whether a fellow cyclist has more severe or less severe injuries – the ride brings them together, Broome said. They may have just met, but there’s a sense of deeper connection.
Soldier Ride is a demonstration of the human spirit, Kraus said. “You could lose an arm or you can lose a leg and you can still go out and do things you used to do, differently –what we call the new normal.”
For more information about Wounded Warrior Project, visit www.woundedwarriorproject.org
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