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Taking off the training wheels, experiencing the Warrior Ride

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Alexandra Trobe
  • Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs
It's early Friday morning, and bitter cold, the kind of unwelcoming cold seldom felt in the morning air in the usually warm LowCountry.

A frigid breeze seeps into my mouth and chills my blood from the inside out. I would've stayed inside my car all day, avoiding this unpleasant air if only I could. I sat in my car with the heat turned up, listening to the faint sounds of a Top 40 radio station, but I have work to do.

The Warrior Ride is in town today. It is an incredible non-profit organization that gives wounded warriors and veterans the opportunity for rehabilitation through adaptive bicycling. This morning there are more than 45 Warrior Ride participants scheduled to ride starting at the Citadel in downtown Charleston, through Charleston Air Force Base, and ending at North Charleston.

It's quiet outside. I sit silently in the parking lot of Hampton Park just outside of the Citadel in downtown Charleston, watching the ducks swim in circles in a pond surrounded by tall trees, sweeping low with Spanish moss. They're looking for their breakfast and I'm looking for signs that I'm in the right place.

As expected, 14 North Charleston Police cars come blazing into the parking lot. Their twirling blue lights, somber and eerie reflecting on the water, makes it unmistakable something is about to happen here. Early morning runners seemed alarmed, but these police officers were there to volunteer their time to support our combat veterans, not respond to a hostile crime scene before the break of dawn.

As a former NCAA athlete I've been a competitive swimmer long before I could walk.. Seriously, my mom says she knew I was destined for greatness from the first "mommy and me" infant swim practice she brought me to. I don't know about that, but years of experience have taught me to recognize this all too familiar feeling that happens before a race.

It's a combination of the adrenaline and nerves that makes everything heightened, as if you know exactly where you're going but your body is moving on its own accord. Today I'm not in my comfortable medium of water, today we're riding bikes.

I'm nervous, but it's a different feeling than I'm used to. Since I first heard about the Warrior Ride, I was inspired to train on a bike so I could be a part of this trip. My first hurdle was simply getting on the bike. Using a road bike with clip-in shoes was uncomfortable for me I fell more than a few times trying to stop, forgetting my feet were still bound to the bike.

The physical challenges, however, far outweighed the mental ones. I don't think I deserve to ride in today's company of combat wounded, active-duty and retired veterans.

Can they tell I don't belong here? What could I hope to add to any conversation with these American heroes? Even with all my training, can they see how out of my element I am on a bike?

As the wounded warriors of the Warrior Ride get ready to depart on their 30-mile bike ride for the day, sharing snacks, water and stories with each other, I slink back to a circle of police officers drinking their coffee as the steam rises up and evaporates into the chilly air.

I ask an obligatory question to the group about what the route would be and what time they thought we would depart, and proceed to take my time checking my bike, putting on my gear, just trying to blend into the crowd.

As the sun started to peak above the trees, it was time to push off. Following a full police escort, the group started a slow but deliberate and almost defiant ride through the park and off to our first destination at the Citadel.

Struggling to find the appropriate gear for my bike and not bump into anyone else around me down, I managed to look up in time to see the cadets of the Citadel in their uniforms waving these wounded warriors on and sending them off with a salute.

The response from the Citadel cadets was an incredible juxtaposition between those will serve honoring those who have served.

As a 2013 graduate of the Air Force Academy I remembered similar formations in which we honored veterans who visited our campus. I remember early mornings in Colorado where the sun was just coming up over the mountain ranges, and all 4,000 cadets were standing in perfect attention to honor the veterans and wounded warriors who visited.

It was a surreal almost out of body experience to recognize that the life they are training for is the life I'm currently living. No, we we're certainly not in Colorado anymore. And, it didn't take too much of a jump to look to my left and right at the Warrior Ride, red, white and blue jerseys, and recognize that I was closer to these veterans with years of military experience then I had previously thought.

Pulling up next to Bob Racine, I learned that I had been misguided about my nerves toward contributing to the conversation; sometimes I just needed to listen.

Racine told me a story about him and his wife Debora, from Oak Island, N.C., and how they started the Warrior Ride.

Bob, a founding member of Delta-Force with three tours in Vietnam under his belt, was tired of the treatment from the American people for him and his comrades when they returned. After returning home from duty he was neither welcomed nor celebrated by Americans he put his life on the line for. He promised to do everything he could to make sure no veterans were ever treated that way again.

Bob was able to use his experiences to fuel a passion for the rehabilitation of our injured war heroes through adaptive bicycling challenges. Since its inception in 2005, Bob and his wife Debra have operated the Warrior Ride organization out of their garage and often invite traveling veterans to stay the night with them at their home in Oak Island, N.C.

That Friday's 30-mile bike ride was part of a three-day ride throughout Charleston encompassing more than 90 miles of bicycling. The thought of completing 30 miles alone is exhausting, and half way through the ride, I begin to get a sense of the perseverance it requires for anyone to accomplish such a task, and how driven and inspirational it makes our wounded warriors and veterans, some of whom ride on recumbent and hand-powered bikes due to their combat injuries.

Ronald Mayfield, is another cyclist on the Warrior Ride who rides a hand-powered bike.

His helmet looks like the inside of a brain. Inciting curious looks from bystanders and, he hopes, questions. It gives Mayfield the opportunity to talk about his traumatic brain injury he sustained on active duty and to remind us that not all injuries can be seen from the outside.

After years of recovery through adaptive bicycling, Mayfield is one of the Warrior Ride's strongest cyclists.

Thinking about pedaling a hand bike for 90 miles makes my fears and uncertainty about riding an upright bike for the day pale in comparison. It inspires me to push myself harder in my own training, and to never take for granted my physical abilities.

These recumbent bikes demonstrate another lesson, as we ride over big hills or the on-ramps of the highway, they literally need a push from other riders to get momentum going over the crest. Images of veterans pushing each other mentally and physically to overcome this challenge are moments I will never forget.

Things that I take for granted, such as being able to ride a bike and climb a hill, become a sense of community and joint purpose to this group I have the honor of riding with.

The longer we rode the more comfortable we became, starting as strangers and using the common thread of military service to tie us together.

We are Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, active duty, veterans, wounded warriors, volunteers, police officers and civilians, but as we finally entered the gates of Joint Base Charleston to tour the base and rest for lunch; we were simply bikers.

Stepping back from the table from lunch provided by the 628th Air Base Wing Chapel, we all gathered outside in the courtyard for a group picture. In that moment the wounded warriors on both sides of me put their arms around me and we stood for a moment like this, arms locked and smiling in the bright South Carolina sun. This morning's frigid and uneasy start already forgotten.

I learned that my fears had been unfounded towards not being accepted by this group of bikers, the bond that ties past, present and future military members is one that reaches back through history and links us through our decision to raise our right hands to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

From the fields of Vietnam to the parade field of the Citadel, as the training wheels come off our bikes and we ride as one team it reminds me that wherever stage we are in our military careers, we are part of the same family, and we are never alone.