Wounded Warrior Project | Soldier Ride
A veterans’ services organization puts disabled military men and women on the cycling path to recovery.
Veterans suffering psychological ailments are usually assigned bicycles. Those missing lower limbs are typically given handcycles. The blind pedal tandem bikes steered by sighted guides.
The two dozen Afghanistan and Iraq war vets expected to wheel through two 20-plus-mile cycling trips Friday 15 and Saturday 16 require various means of transport. But they share a common struggle: rebuilding their lives after service-related injuries or illness. This is the goal of the Wounded Warrior Project, and the reason the post–9/11 vets’ service organization sponsors these Soldier Rides.
The seed for this armed-services spin on Critical Mass was planted in 2004, when a New York bartender named Chris Carney pedaled coast to coast, raising $1 million for WWP. The cycling journey has evolved into an exercise in recovery—battle-scarred men and women joining forces, empowering each other to forge ahead.
“When someone experiences a traumatic event like injury or illness, they’re not sure what they’re going to be able to do,” says Jacqueline Kelley, the health and wellness coordinator of WWP’s Oak Brook location, one of eight outposts nationwide. “[Soldier Ride] challenges them to get out and do it. Once they do, the possibilities are endless.”
WWP was founded in 2002 by John Melia, an ex-marine from Virginia wounded in a helicopter crash off the coast of Somalia in 1992. Melia experienced what he called “significant gaps” in the military’s “invisible handoff” of injured soldiers to the Department of Veterans Affairs—from providing basic clothing to preparing a wounded service member’s family to take on the role of caregiver. The org attempts to fill the gaps with a variety of services: combat-stress recovery, adaptive sports programs, mental-health retreats, vocational training and job-placement assistance.
Returning to Soldier Ride for the second year is disabled vet Lemuel “James” Dahan, a 30-year-old recent Benedictine University grad, who cruises on a handcycle. The former marine corporal, a resident of suburban Lisle, was deployed to Iraq in 2004. His infantry unit was charged with securing the country’s northwestern border. On Father’s Day, three months into his deployment, Dahan had just finished a call to his eldest daughter when a neighboring platoon came under fire. Rushing to its aid, Dahan took a wrong step on a train track and fractured his foot. The break would require reconstructive surgery.
Back on U.S. soil, Dahan was evaluated by the VA, which revealed less apparent wounds: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, the result of more than 30 IEDs that detonated near his vehicle. He suffers memory loss, vision impairment and light sensitivity. “I wear sunglasses 24/7,” he says. But the foot injury that causes him to limp and ended his military career received a VA disability rating percentage of zero—disqualifying him from a monthly benefit check.
Things changed once WWP became the advocate for Dahan’s claim. The VA raised the rating percentage on his chronic foot pain, making him eligible for benefits. “[WWP] got me to the proper doctors to assess my condition,” Dahan says. “And they kept the paperwork moving—the worst part of the process.”
Currently, 870,000 veterans await disability claims from the VA. Somewhere in the heap is a claim WWP helped Dahan file: a request for a handcycle. “Without the Wounded Warrior Project,” he says, “I wouldn’t have known it was within my rights in the first place.”
The Soldier Rides begin at 8:30am on Friday 15 at Chicago Fire Department Engine 42 (55 W Illinois St) and Saturday 16 at Bullfrog Lake (95th St and Wolf Rd, Willow Springs).