They were children once, long before war left its miserable imprint on their psyches and bodies. And because they were kids, they rode bikes.
Jeanette Nieves-Ayala remembers. Chain clanking, tires humming, front doors flashing past as she pedaled hard along her stretch of Brooklyn street; four decades later, she remembers those days in New York City with a smile.
“Me, my brothers, my sisters, all the kids on my block,” said Nieves-Ayala, 50. “We all rode our bikes.”
This weekend, Nieves-Ayala is testing those old skills in Soldier Ride, a gathering of about 50 wounded veterans pedaling bicycles in the metro area. The rides, sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project, help participants repair physical and emotional wounds.
The first ride took place Friday with a 15-mile tour around Stone Mountain. Today’s ride, a 26-mile jaunt, is in Palmetto.
Nieves-Ayala qualifies as a participant. A 20-year veteran of the Army who now lives in central Florida, she was wounded in Iraq in 2009. Four years later, she still says little about what happened in Tikrit, an Iraqi city where fighting was “kind of hot.” As a result of her injuries, she’s riding a recumbent bike, keeping her low to the ground. Her sense of balance, said Nieves-Ayala, has not been the same since 2009.
Earlier this week, Nieves-Ayala was eager to fly to Atlanta to connect with old friends — and, perhaps, to make some new ones.
“I like being around other veterans,” said Nieves-Ayala, who has participated in other Wounded Warrior events. “It makes you feel like you’re on the road to recovery, and other veterans are on the road to recovery with you.”
An open road can provide just that, said Daniel Schnock, who directs the rides for the Wounded Warrior Project. The nonprofit organization promotes rides and other events to raise awareness of the needs facing wounded veterans returning to life after war.
Their needs have never been more acute. Department of Defense figures show that unprecedented numbers of veterans have returned from conflicts with wounds — some obvious and others harder to detect. Advances in field surgery, coupled with better armor, have saved lives that would have been lost in earlier conflicts.
They come back with a host of needs, said Schnock. For some, a bike ride helps fulfill them.
“It’s not just physical,” said Schnock, a retired lieutenant colonel who served in Desert Storm (the first Iraqi war), and followed that with tours in Bosnia and Kosovo before a return trip to Iraq. “It’s knowing that you’re not alone.”
Civilians cannot fully understand why veterans seek each other out, said Harold Newhouse. A Warner Robins native, he joined the Marines and fractured his back in Iraq in 2008. Surgeons repaired the damage with titanium as best they could, but for Newhouse, his tenure in the Marines was over. He retired in 2008 at age 30.
Newhouse came from Texas to the metro area on Thursday to get ready for the rides.
“It’s a big healing process,” Newhouse said. “Not just the physical process, but the mental process, too.”
Orrick Curry understands. A master sergeant in the Army Georgia National Guard who has served 27 years – seven active — Curry knows war. He served in Desert Storm, then returned to Iraq years later. He also served in Afghanistan before heart problems prompted the military to remove him from that country for surgery.
Curry, 46 and a detective with the Atlanta Police Department, is pedaling for his heart – and more. His knees have taken a pounding; soldiering is hard on them.
He’s also aware of his emotional needs. He wants to feel the wind in his hair, hear the snap of gears as he changes speeds, see the landscape gently greening into another spring.
Curry wants to do it with others who understand, too. A wound is a powerful bond.
“These rides, they give you some cohesion,” said Curry, who recently participated in a ride from New Orleans to Tallahassee, a six-day journey that encompassed nearly 380 miles.
“We work together as a unit, like we were taught in the military. We start as a team; we finish as a team.”
For more information about the Wounded Warrior Project, go to http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org