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FairfaxNews'Soldier Ride' gives Wounded Warriors links to one another, community

‘Soldier Ride’ gives Wounded Warriors links to one another, community

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After pedaling a standard upright bicycles and a three-wheeled recumbent bike around the parking lot on June 21 at the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Vern Babka chose the former machine to participate in outings sponsored by Soldier Ride later that week.

Wounded veterans from around the country on June 22 and 24 were scheduled to take part in Soldier Ride, a series of nationwide bicycle events sponsored by the Wounded Warriors Project.

This was the first ride with the program for Babka, who hails from south New Jersey. He chose to participate “just for the chance to do it.”

The Wounded Warriors Project was founded in 2003 and began its Soldier Ride efforts the following year. The program canceled its 2020 rides because of the pandemic, and held a series of “virtual” events with training, workouts and online-education.

The regular rides came back last year, said Soldier Ride manager Linda Cleveland, who has been with the group for three years.

“This is a really empowering, fulfilling and humbling experience to work with veterans who’ve been through a lot,” she said.

Justin Schnittker, a specialist who has been with the program since May 2019, is not a veteran, but was enthusiastic about the opportunity to help them.

“I am here to serve the mission, to honor and empower wounded warriors,” he said.

The program owns the bicycles, which are purchased using funds donated from the public and corporations, Schnittker said.

The program held the equipment-outfitting session at the hotel so veterans could test ride and evaluate various kinds of bicycles before the rides.

Technicians kept a wide variety of tools on hand to make sure the bikes were in peak operating condition.

Participants could choose from traditional road bikes, hybrid bicycles (which feature flat handlebars and mountain-bike gearing), three-wheeled recumbents, hand cycles and tandem bikes.

Three-wheeled incumbent bikes are good for people with injuries, balance issues and spinal problems, Schnittker said, while hand cycles are a good choice for veterans with spinal-cord injuries and lower-body amputations.

Hybrid and recumbent bikes typically are the most popular, as they can handle a variety of riding surfaces, he said.

Schnittker displayed the program’s first electric-assist (pedaling optional) tandem recumbent bike, a HASE Pino. The bicycle is unusual because the “pilot” rider sits in back and lets the passenger have an unobstructed front view.

“We’ve broadened our ability to serve our severely ill and wounded people,” he said of the new equipment.

Organizers were expecting about 28 veterans to participate in a pair of rides. One on June 22 would cover about 20 miles in Annapolis; the June 24 ride would feature about the same distance but be held in Fairfax County’s Mason Neck area.

Many of the riders will come from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, but five will be flown in from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

The rides have permits from the relevant governmental organizations and will have police escorts, plus Emergency Medical Services support, Cleveland said.

Based in Colorado Springs, the Soldier Ride program conducts rides in dozens of cities around the country, from New York and Pittsburgh to Chicago and San Diego. In Colorado, the group also holds mountain-bike and skiing/snowboarding events.

Some of Soldier Rides’ most popular events are those for women only, 50-and-older groups and “couples” events catering to veterans and their caregivers, spouses or family-support members, Cleveland said.

Soldier Ride connects veterans and their local communities, “creating a strong support system to help them manage the visible and invisible wounds of war,” group leaders said.

The Wounded Warriors Project’s annual survey last year found veterans were 57 percent less likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder if they have maintained the social support of their comrades in arms.

Babka agreed with the program’s spirit of socialization and camaraderie.

“It’s very important for veterans to have a social network,” he said.

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