Wounded warriors roll toward healing in Soldier Ride Boston
Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
HYANNIS, Mass. — Chris Loiselle forgot his bike shoes.
The ones he borrowed for his 20-mile trip on the Cape Cod Rail Trail on Thursday morning were identical to what dozens of people around him were wearing, as was his bright blue shirt.
Despite that, he was feeling more like himself than he has in a while.
“I love this,” the nine-year U.S. Air Force veteran, 35, of Chelmsford, said. “My wife made me do it. ... But I love being able to talk about what I went through. And I don't have that at home.”
This week, about 45 wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, including Loiselle, came to Cape Cod from across the country for the Wounded Warrior Project's second annual Soldier Ride Boston.
The four-day event brings together the men and women, who all suffer physical or psychological injuries from their deployments, for exercise and bonding.
When veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, they faced previously unheard-of levels of traumatic brain injuries, caused by the type of enemy weapons they faced, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As of Aug. 1, there were about 51,000 wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 320,000 with TBIs and 400,000 with PTSD, according to figures provided by the Wounded Warrior Project.
And for many, dealing with those invisible wounds set up roadblocks they haven't seen with their physical injuries. “People instantly think there's nothing wrong with me,” Erick Millette, 35, of Webster, said. But after being forced into medical retirement, “I didn't know who I was.”
Millette served in the U.S. Army for 11½ years and was a combat patrol leader in Iraq when his team was hit by nine improvised explosive devices.
He suffered knee and lower back injuries, plus the “hidden” wounds of a traumatic brain injury and PTSD, he said.
Combined with the end of his career, the injuries sent him spiraling into suicidal depression and alcohol use, Millette said.
It was only on a Wounded Warrior Project retreat to the Poconos in November that he finally started healing. He now works for the nonprofit organization as a traveling speaker and has taken part in the Soldier Ride once before.
Loiselle is hoping he'll have the same success with his first ride since getting involved with the project four months ago. “This is the only interaction I have with other veterans, short of my dad,” he said.
During his service, Loiselle deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. It took only one of those deployments for him to begin experiencing post-traumatic stress.
Coupled with the loss of his military life when he retired in 2007, Loiselle struggled with adapting to things “normal” people do, he said.
Crowds are worrisome. Loud noises are a no-go. And even family life with his wife and 6-year-old son has been difficult.
He was treated for PTSD through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but its answer was numbing medications. “So I didn't want to kill myself anymore, but I didn't want to do anything else, either,” Loiselle said.
A few months ago, Loiselle's wife found the Wounded Warrior Project, and he found exercise. There are no more VA-prescribed drugs. “I started a new life,” said Loiselle, who has lost 35 pounds in the last four months and now cycles for fun. “That's my medicine.”
Loiselle's new dedication to his physical well-being – and how it has improved him mentally, too – is why the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride was started in the first place by Amagansett, N.Y., bar owner Peter Honerkamp and a couple of friends.
None served in the military, co-founder Nick Kraus said, but they saw a younger generation returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries “and wanted to give back.”
The project started with “a beer pitcher on the bar to raise money” and an idea by third co-founder Chris Carney to ride his bicycle across the country to raise awareness and benefit funds, Honerkamp said.
And it did, garnering millions of dollars and raising awareness for the organization, which now has about 30,000 “alumni” – wounded military veterans – who use its services.
When veterans began joining Carney on short segments of his trip after learning about its goal, Honerkamp said, “We realized we had not just a fundraiser but a rehabilitation trip, too. ... Performing a physical activity makes them feel strong, feel vital.”
From Loiselle's point of view, the idea is a success.
On Wednesday, he arrived in South Yarmouth with several dozen other riders who spent the afternoon at the Cape Cod Irish Village making small talk and beginning to bond.
“Yeah, I know, I say I'm into exercise while I've got a cigarette,” Loiselle joked.
By Thursday morning, when the Wounded Warriors gathered in South Dennis for their first ride on the rail trail, Loiselle and a handful of other riders were ribbing and photobombing each other.
And by that night, Loiselle had found the people he'd been looking for who knew what he'd seen – literally. “I ran into people I was on base with in Iraq,” he said.
Later, he shared a cigarette break with a man who'd gone on the same rescue mission in 2003.
No longer members of platoons, the Warriors had again, finally, found comrades.
“Honestly, this is one of the best days of my life,” Loiselle said. “These are my brothers.”