Once a soldier, always a soldier.
That esprit d’corps is the driving force behind Soldier Ride, a cross-country bike trek to raise funds and awareness for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I tell people this isn’t the Girl Scout ride... It’s the Soldier Ride," said Steven Nardizzi of Warwick, N.Y., and Soldier Ride's executive director.
Nardizzi and group of his friends from East Hampton, N.Y., hatched the idea for Soldier Ride in 2004, with intention of showing civilian support for severely wounded soldiers recovering in hospitals across the country.
The first ride consisted of one biker, Chris Carney, one of the founders and a bartender in Amagansett, N.Y. Remarkably, that first ride raised $2 million, and gave Soldier Ride's founders the impetus to make it an annual event.
The second ride, which featured Carney and two veterans who lost legs in combat, traveled 4,200 miles and raised about $1 million.
This year's ride, the third, grew to include 50 wounded veterans who took turns riding portions of the 3,000-mile journey that began on May 6 in Montauk, N.Y., and finished in San Clemente, Calif., on July 29. The ride so far has raised $600,000, with money still pouring in, but just as important, it reinforced the veterans' determination to succeed.
"The hardest thing was knowing when to call it a day out on the road." Nardizzi said. "You’ve got grown men, disciplined from the military that wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to bike 100 miles today.’ Who are you to postpone that goal? But when you see trucks doing 75 miles an hour, or the road is getting slick, it’s a call that has to be made."
With route segments through the arrid Southwest that included San Antonio-to-El Paso, Phoenix-to-Camp Pendleton, Calif., and temperatures hitting 123 degrees — and continuing to hover around 105 at night — a pre-dawn reveille would be a good move for anyone crazy enough to bike that far.
The riders used the predawn hours to re-fill water bottles, re-tune bikes and re-stock supplies, water and fresh ice, all needed to replace the pounds of sweat lost over the course of a daily 70-mile ride.
"You’ll sometimes see an amputee not even biking, just sitting there — the sweat pouring down his face, said Sandy Kiegel of Amagansett, NY, and Soldier Ride organizer. "And they tell you ‘yeah I’m fine, it’s just that you usually sweat out your legs and I don’t have any legs.'"
The biggest challenge, Nardizzi said, was not the terrain, the heat, or even the riders' myriad of combat injuries. It was reining in their take-no-prisoners spirit, which if left unchecked, could have led to accidents, or worse.
That spirit helped push 25-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Yegor Bodarenko of San Antonio, Texas, to become only the third wounded veteran in Soldier Ride's three-year history to complete the entire cross-country trek. It was a torch passed on from 2005 riders Heath Calhoun, a double amputee, and Ryan Kelly, a below-the-knee amputee.
When you meet Yegor, you instinctively go for the routine right-to-right handshake, but quickly and awkwardly adjust once you realize he can only offer his left.
On May 26, 2005, Yegor lost his right arm in a roadside bomb attack in Diyarah, Iraq. His buddy, 22-year old Cpl. Mark Maida of Madison, Wis., was killed.
"A trip wire... not even a mile into where we had to go... It was right there," Yegor said. "You couldn’t even see it, and before you knew it, it was over."
Yegor was hospitalized and missed Maida's funeral. When he decided to attempt the ride, he did so in memory of his combat buddy. Maida's parents, Ray and Diane, learned of the ride on the Web, contacted Yegor and made plans to meet when the ride went through Little Rock, Ark.
The introduction carried with it a lot of anxiety for Yegor.
"When we got there, he took over an hour to come down from his room," Ray Maida said. "We knew it was going to be very emotional. It was hard. We told him, ‘You don’t decide. You didn’t decide what seat would go and what seat would stay,'" he said, referring to the ill-fated ride in the Army Humvee.
The Maidas say the Soldier Ride has given them a place to fulfill what they believe would have been their son’s dying wishes.
"Mark was all about his soldiers," Maida said of his son. "This is not about politics... What would Mark want us to do? Take care of his friends, make sure his soldier friends are okay."
The money raised by the ride goes to help fulfill that goal.
First and foremost, the funds are used to create a unique fleet of bikes to accommodate the various physical challenges the riders face. The fleet includes:
– Standard road bikes: Appropriate for a single-arm or single-leg, below-the-knee amputee, a crank-shortener can give a prosthesis more range of motion. A switch gear allows for the break and gear shifters to be on the same side of the bike as an option.
– Hybrid bikes: A cross between a mountain bike and a road bike, with wider tires for added stability.
– Handcycles: Appropriate for a double-leg amputee or a single-leg amputee with complications in his other limb.
– Recumbant: Appropriate for arm amputees and those with back injuries, a more stable, low-riding seat that provides back comfort and support, with alternative steering.
– Cat Trike:Like the recumbent, there are three wheels instead of two, one wheel is under the seat and the two are in front. The two handlebars are used to steer the bike.
The Cat Trike was the bike of choice for Tempe, Ariz., native Capt. Ryan Kules.
"Kules lost an arm and a leg on either side," Nardizzi said. "This presents a challenge because usually you rig a bike for one injury or the other, not both.
"But Kules says, ‘Put me on a bike.’ So we did," he continued. "We consulted with the professionals, and we made one work and he can take it home."
In addition to the bikes, Soldier Ride also provides funds for backpacks delivered to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Bethesda, Md., filled with patient essentials from clean T-shirts to underwear, phone cards to playing cards.
Money also helps cover transportation costs for visiting relatives and assorted adaptive sports programs.
It also provides much needed camaraderie and relief from months in the hospital.
"With this, there is no rush," Yegor said. "We are a team. We cannot get down the road without each other. So what I tell the guys is, ‘don’t let the bike ride you. You ride the bike."
The riders' spirit was contagious, as Americans across the country, in towns large and small, came out in support.
In Idabel, Okla., (named after two sisters, Ida and Belle, population 6,980) the riders were greeted at 7 a.m. by a Main Street packed with well-wishers.
In Uvalde, Texas, Judge William Mitchell hosted a dinner at his house for all eight riders, and made each of them honorary colonels.
Traveling through Arkansas, supporters told the riders they could not spend a dime during their time there, saying they were honorary "Good Will Ambassadors."
That support, the riders said, got them through the toughest parts.
"We woke up to pouring rain on the day we were supposed to ride into Lebanon, Tennessee," Yegor said. "And you know there is a moment when you say, ‘ah let’s cancel, it’s pouring.’ Then we hear the entire town is waiting in the rain for us. So, of course we saddled up. You ride into town and they are there for us. That makes you feel good."
Nardizzi said the spectators had a mixture of emotions.
"Some would just be in shock, and say, ‘I can’t believe you are doing this’ with such happiness. Others would come up to you in tears, with a loved one on their mind," Nardizzi said. "It was like they were waiting for some place to put all those feelings and there we were right in front of them. We came right to their town."
When asked what got him through the ride, Yegor said one word. "Her," pointing to his wife Lena, who accompanied him on her own bike for much of the ride.
"You see a lot of magnets on the cars all over, but with something like this you see who really supports the soldiers," Lena said.
It is a journey that has given the couple new hope, and a new sport.
Even the Maida’s have tipped them off that they’ve been researching a tandem bike the couple can ride together.
"I tell them you don’t have to give us anything," Yegor said. "Just the fact that we are friends now is just great."