Honoring their sacrifice and spirit

The Baltimore Sun

Chad Watson's Marine Corps unit encountered a bomb in November 2006 while he was serving his first tour in Fallujah, Iraq. The 25-year-old corporal lost a leg and has been in physical therapy ever since.

But, like the 24 other military veterans who participated in a three-day regional bike tour that ended yesterday, a physical disability wasn't going to stop Watson from living his life to the fullest.

"To me, it means getting to know the guys outside the hospital," Watson said. "It just means a lot to be with these men and women."

About 50 people biked through Washington and Maryland as part of the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride's White House to Lighthouse Challenge, which ended in Annapolis yesterday. Many of the participants with leg injuries and amputations used hand-operated bicycles. Military veterans wore matching shirts with an American flag motif.

Half of the bikers were veterans who were wounded while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The other riders included members of the Navy cycling team, said Woody Groton, Soldier Ride national tour director.

The national tour comprised eight regional rides throughout the country, including those in New York and Florida, Groton said. He said this was the first year the Annapolis area was included in the tour.

"The ride is a rehabilitative, adaptive cycling ride," Groton said. "We challenge them. We make it long, so when they finish, they realize there's nothing they can't do - they just have to do it differently."

Watson, of Mount Zion, Ill., said that's one reason he decided to participate in the tour. He said that, like most of his comrades, he was active before his injury and wants to ease back into an athletic lifestyle.

"The hills are rough, but I think we like the challenge," he said.

Watson's fiancee, Jillian Kinsella, 24, of Taylor Park, Ill., is a civilian, but participated in the ride to support her husband-to-be. The couple has been engaged since June. The wedding is scheduled for August.

As the cyclists rode through Annapolis yesterday, they stopped for a brief ceremony with members of local and state government.

"We're deeply honored to have you here today," said Alderman Samuel E. Shropshire, who represents Ward 7 on the Annapolis city council. "You are our heroes.

"We're grateful for the sacrifices you've made to our country."

State Sen. John C. Astle, who represents District 30, also spoke at the ceremony. He recalled his experience returning home from serving in the Vietnam War. Dressed in his Marine Corps Reserve uniform, he was spit on by a woman in the airport.

"I'm glad the attitude has changed," Astle said.

The bikers began at the White House on Thursday and stopped at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. The riders also had the opportunity to meet President Bush in the Oval Office, Groton said.

On Friday, bikers were driven to a rally that was held at the Inner Harbor Harborplace Amphitheater.

Yesterday, the ride picked up again at Jonas Green Park in Annapolis. Cyclists rode through historic Annapolis, the U.S. Naval Academy and along the Chesapeake Bay.

The whole trip is about 30 miles of biking, Groton said.

The national Soldier Ride began in 2004, when a wounded veteran rode his bike coast-to-coast to support the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization that works to help members of the U.S. armed forces who have been injured. In 2007, the ride went from the coast-to-coast format to regional rides, in an effort to increase local participation.

Cindy Cole of Annapolis took her 3-year-old twins to meet some of the veterans.

"No matter what you think about any conflict ... the least I can do is come here and give my support," Cole said. She and her sons, Walker and Cole, donned red, white and blue clothing and waved miniature American flags.

"I want these people to understand what this means - the sacrifices and what people do for this country," Cole said as she pointed to her sons.

Nick Bruno of Davidsonville said he read about the event in the newspaper and decided to bring his wife and son. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1995, Bruno said he served in the Middle East for about two years. He left the Navy in 2004.

"It's good to have my son come down and see people who are fighting for his freedom," Bruno said.

As Watson prepared to finish the ride through Annapolis, he stopped his hand cycle briefly to talk to Cole and her sons, who wanted to meet the veteran. Watson shared with them the story behind his injury, and the family thanked him for his service before he rode off with a smile.

Watson said the ride wasn't about politics - it was a chance for people to come together to support each other.

"We're not out here to make a statement," Watson said. "We're trying to have fun."


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