On the day when America paused to remember those who died in the 9-11 terrorist attacks, local residents also showed their appreciation to a group of veterans who pedaled through Fort Worth.
“It was awesome,” said Rosa Villanueva, an Army veteran who cycled 15 miles with 50 of her brothers and sisters in the Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride. “You can’t help feeling great. The people gave us an extra boost of energy, honking and waving.”
The veterans started their ride in the Stockyards and rolled through downtown and the Cultural District before returning for lunch at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in the Stockyards.
Escorted by more than two dozen police officers, the veterans were cheered by everyone who watched them pass. Motorists tied up in traffic behind the convoy, or who waited through a couple of traffic lights at intersections, never complained, said Fort Worth police Sgt. DW Yerigan.
“They were showing lots of respect and gratitude,” Yerigan said.
In it’s 11th year as part of the Wounded Warrior Project, Soldier Ride has fitted veterans with bikes that get around their limitations, as well as helmets and cycling clothes, and sent them pedaling through four-day tours in such locations as San Antonio, Miami, New York and even Landstuhl, Germany.
The North Texas tour continues with a Saturday ride in Dallas.
Taking care of our own
The Wounded Warrior Project isn’t much older than Soldier Ride. An idea born as injured soldiers began returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the organization grew from handing out comfort items to a massive rehabilitation and transitioning effort. An array of programs helps rebuild warriors’ minds, bodies, finances, self-images and other facets of their “new normal” with such experiences as sky diving, skiing and hunting.
Friday’s bike-riding warriors were put up at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine and feted with a lot more than bike rides.
James Hammons, 50, a former sergeant, likened Wounded Warrior events to off-duty recreations he enjoyed during 19 years in the Army.
“They stack up activities that bring us together so we get to know each other,” said Hammons, who has reduced use of his left leg due to a service-related injury from a horse falling on him.
“We had a good time last night at Top Golf, and Le Cordon Bleu is giving us a cooking class.”
‘It’s a good feeling’
Villanueva, 41, echoed Hammons’ praise for the Wounded Warrior Project. After her discharge, she wasn’t getting what she needed despite commendable efforts by people trying to help her readjust to the real world after 22 years and some disheartening duties in the Army.
Villanueva was deployed in 1998 and ’99 in Bosnia, where conducting ceremonies for fallen soldiers and consoling their loved ones gradually wore away her emotional shields.
A 2011 deployment to Iraq frequently put her under indirect fire in Blackhawk and Apache helicopters. But what really got to the human resources specialist was the number of soldiers who committed suicide.
“We lost more soldiers to suicide than to combat after my last deployment in Iraq,” Villaneuva said.
Ultimately, Villanueva was diagnosed with emotional wounds that included depression and PTSD.
“I thought that once I’m out of the military, that’s it; but there are lots of people who want to help with your transition,” said Villanueva, 41, a Murphy resident.
She tried CrossFit — an eclectic combination of strength and agility exercises in a group-therapy-like atmosphere — but it didn’t quite fit her.
“That was a community of good people, and I could relate to them as far as exercise,” Villanueva said. “But I missed the military.”
Villaneuva discovered that the Wounded Warrior Project provided what she needed.
“I’m at ease with other veterans; not on alert like I normally am,” Villanueva said. “We don’t even have to say anything to relate with one another. It’s a good feeling.”