A group of military veterans has been riding bikes this week in and around Washington, D.C. Many of the bikes have been reconfigured so that soldiers who lost limbs and suffered wounds in war could feel the power in their grace and the wind in their faces.
They joined the annual, four-day Soldier Ride, held in cities across the country and organized by the Wounded Warriors Project.
Before the ride started, the veterans were fitted for their custom-made bikes at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Michael Owens was riding for the third time. In 2005, he was a U.S. Marine on his second deployment in Iraq. He was manning a heavy gun on a tank — but the tank got hit, rolled over and crushed him.
He lost an arm above the elbow and shattered both of his legs.
"I got two [post-cruciate ligament] replacements on my left knee ... and then I have a metal rod from my right knee to my right hip," he says.
So how does Owens ride a bike?
"Carefully," he jokes.
"It's important," he says, "not only for me, but I think it's really important for warriors and veterans like myself to be able to know that we can still do the same things that we did before, or new things that we never tried before. I mean, that is essential when it comes to recovery."
'A Sense Of Normalcy'
Owens is a veteran at picking up his life. But there are also riders who are just getting started, like Sgt. Patrick Brown of Chesapeake, Va.
He was fitted with a bike that he could pedal with his hands. It also had a specially made cushion, molded to his body.
Brown served in Iraq and was on a bomb-clearing patrol in Afghanistan in 2010 when he was hit by an IED. He lost most of both legs.
"I lost this one just below the knee, this one was blown off around the kneecap, and then I lost the rest of the leg and my hip bone to infections," he says.
Learning how to ride a bike all over again, he says, is "a chance to start over, just learning the same things you used to learn in a different way."
Brown is 23. He says he's had 54 surgeries. His mother, Susan Brown, joined him in Bethesda this week, and remembers when she and her husband got the call at 5 a.m. that their son was wounded.
"That's usually about the same time Patrick would call, so ... I was expecting Patrick to go, 'Hi, Mom.' Instead we got, 'This is Marines Quantico,' " she says. "It was tough, you know, then you just settle on, OK, he's injured but he's alive. Then they read off the list of injuries, and you just have to focus on, OK, but he's alive.
"So it was five days of rough stuff before he got back here," she adds. "But then when he was here and you can lay eyes on him, you know, you're like, it's going to be OK — we can deal with all this, we can get through this. And he's had nothing but a positive attitude, so that helps immensely."
She says bike riding for her son means "a sense of normalcy and a little bit of freedom."
"The first time he rode the bike, he went around the tracks — he was like, 'You know, Mom, this is what I used to do. This is great. This is telling me that everything I did isn't lost. I can come back and beat this.' "
'A Kick In The Butt'
Deven Schei and his brother Erik are waging the same battle.
Erik was shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq in 2005. He's talking again, but can't walk. Deven was wounded in his legs, back, shoulder and head in Afghanistan in 2010.
He has had 15 surgeries and is making his second Wounded Warriors ride — pulling his brother, Erik, behind him.
"I do the pedaling, and my brother's job is pretty much to tell me to row," Deven says. "He's my motivation to keep me going. When I'm almost ready to quit, he motivates me. He makes fun of me, and that's our own little thing. ... It kind of gets me in the mood to push myself a little bit further."
"Before, I was sitting in my room not doing anything," Deven says. "Pretty much felt sorry for myself. And then pretty much a kick in the butt from somebody else that said, 'Hey ... you got both your legs. Look at the other guys — they don't have both theirs, and they're riding a bike — why can't you do it?' "
After three Wounded Warrior Soldier Rides, Michael Owens thinks he knows the word for what riding together gives to people who gave so much: camaraderie.
"Riding with other veterans, riding with other wounded warriors, so to speak, is fun. It's the same kind of fun you had in the military and now we're not in the military — we can't be in the military — but we can have that same camaraderie," he says.
"Going out with big groups like this — 15 to 40 different warriors all riding together. You look back and you got guys missing legs, missing arms — it doesn't matter. We're just all riding together."
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