By David Wood
On a recent autumn day, 350 colorfully clad cyclists swarmed down Newswanger Road and swung right onto Highway 324 out of Lancaster, Pa. Most of them were wounded warriors, like Gary Linfoot, a former Army special forces pilot paralyzed from the waist down in a helicopter crash in Iraq. He rode a specially adapted recumbent bike powered by hand cranks.
Dexter Durrante, a former Army 1st Sergeant blinded in an explosion, rode a tandem bike behind Mike Thomas, a retired Army colonel from Fort Bragg. Joseph Daniel Jackson, a former Navy combat corpsman with nightmares and depression from post traumatic stress disorder, rode a conventional road bike. There were civilians, too, who had joined to support the wounded and help raise money for their cycling and fitness programs.
And as the cyclists streamed past a young man holding a bike on the roadside, they yelled "Come join us! C'mon -- come along with us!"
That's the message from these riders and thousands of others who've come home wounded from Iraq or Afghanistan. Get connected. Join us.
There are countless ways to get involved. While the Departments of Defense and
Veterans Affairs provide a continuum of care and support, a number of gaps have widened as the roster of wounded has swelled. Volunteer, non-profit organizations have proliferated -- and they're looking for help.
For instance, Ride 2 Recovery http://ride2recovery.com/ organized the commemorative ride that took wounded warriors from Ground Zero on September 11 through Pennsylvania to the Pentagon a week later. Ride 2 Recovery and the Wounded Warrior Project's Soldier Ride are dedicated to getting the wounded up out of their wheelchairs or rehab clinics and out onto bicycles. Both organizations are looking for riders, volunteers and fundraisers across the United States.
Operation Homefront offers a wide array of programs and more than a dozen specific ways to get involved, helping wounded warriors and their families directly with everything from car repair to grocery shopping.
There are hundreds of such organizations, and the Army and the Marines maintain lists of service organizations that provide support to the wounded. Many of them, such as Operation Homefront, not only provide major financial support to the wounded for housing and transportation, but also seek to connect individual wounded veterans with neighbors willing to help.
Bobby Henline, who was badly burned in an IED explosion in 2007, was in intensive care at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Tex. but when he recovered enough for independent living, he and his family moved into the Fisher House, which provides free housing to wounded troops on the grounds of major military hospitals. "It's a terrific program because otherwise, to have my family with me it would have been a hotel or some other strange place," he said.
Through its Hero Miles program, the Fisher House Foundation also provides free air transportation for the families of wounded warriors who must travel between home and hospital. The program uses donated frequent flyer miles from the public.
Nonprofits such as the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society provide trauma care nurses and volunteers to augment short-staff hospital wards. The Semper Fi Fund brings specially adapted clothing to amputees.
Nonprofits also help finance handicapped-adapted cars and trucks, organize volunteers to run errands, buy groceries and mow the lawns of families struggling with a severely wounded and hospitalized loved one. Adaptive Adventures takes disabled veterans on ski trips.
Other nonprofits organize adaptive sports, enabling disabled warriors to go fishing, ride horses, mountain climb, even paraglide. Still others provide job counseling and training and help wounded veterans find jobs. Check out The Mission Continues, Project Healing Waters, the VA's community-base sports programs, and Disabled Sports USA.
A nonprofit organization, Wounded Warrior Wives, takes the wives of the severely wounded away from their 24/7 bedside caregiver role and flies them away for a weekend of fun and companionship.
"We wouldn't be where we are today without the nonprofits," said Cheryl Gansner, whose husband Bryan was badly injured by an IED in Iraq in 2006. Currently, she works as a program coordinator for Wounded Warrior Wives. When the VA was too backed up to provide mental health counseling, the Gasners got free counseling through Give an Hour, which links up mental health professionals who donate their time with military service members and their families.
On a hard, uphill leg of the R2R's 9/11 journey across Pennsylvania, a tired rider began to fall behind. Silently, Army Lt.Col. David Haines came alongside, put a hand on the flagging rider's back and gave him a two-minute push. When he'd caught up, the rider turned and shouted a heartfelt "Thanks!" to Haines, who himself was badly wounded in an explosion in Baghdad and who since has become a powerful rider.
Haines' answer sums up what many of the wounded hope will become a new community of the wounded and civilians.
"That's what we're here for," Haines said. "To help each other."
Huffington Post Impact is supporting a list of organizations that you'll be reading about in the "Beyond The Battlefield" series over the next 11 days.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski