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Soldier Ride is more than a weekend bike trip

Cyclists ride on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail in Virginia on April 18, 2013, during Wounded Warrior Project's Soldier Ride D.C., a four-day rehabilitative bike tour aimed at helping veterans heal from psychological and physical injuries.

Aaron Smelley will spend much of the next three days on his bike. Twenty miles at a time, the Army veteran will pedal through Galveston and around the Clear Lake area on the Soldier Ride, a national veterans' cycling event.

"I've never done anything before like this," said Smelley, who doesn't know any of the 50-odd cyclists who'll join him on the 60-mile ride. But he's pretty sure he'll make some lifelong friends by the time they cross the finish line Saturday at Fort Travis Seashore Park on the Bolivar Peninsula.

The Soldier Ride is organized by the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps post-9/11 veterans heal from physical, mental and emotional injuries sustained during military service. Through physical activity, counseling, career training and social events, the project helps veterans readjust to civilian life.

Smelley, 32, joined the Army in 2004 and deployed to Iraq the following year. When he deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, the firefights and rough terrain began to take their toll; Smelley left Afghanistan in 2009 with back pain, a bulging disc and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Smelley, who grew up in Katy, moved back to Texas with his family in 2011. A fellow Army veteran urged him to get involved with the Wounded Warrior Project, and last year Smelley agreed to attend a bowling event with the Houston Texans.

"At the time, I was at a low point in my life," the medically retired staff sergeant said. "But I went ahead and gave it a shot."

That night of bowling with other injured and disabled vets was a life-changer for Smelley, who lives in Cypress.

"I left that first event with my hopes up again," he said.

Since then he's made it a goal to get involved in something with the Wounded Warrior Project each month. Last month, he went to a physical training expo in Dallas, where he learned stretches and exercises to help him train for physical challenges such as the Soldier Ride.

"I bond with other soldiers more on a personal level now that I know I'm not the only one who suffers from a lot of the issues I suffer from with PTSD," he said.

And that's the purpose of the Soldier Ride, which brings wounded veterans in from all over the country.

Houston is hosting a ride for the first time because a new Wounded Warrior Project office opened here last year, said Dan Schnock, national Soldier Ride director.

The participants — most of them from out of state — will ride about 20 miles each morning, then spend the afternoons getting to know each other.

On the schedule: a surf clinic, a tour of the Johnson Space Center, an Astros game and several chances to sample Texas barbecue.

"It's great that we're getting them out to do some physical health and wellness activities," Schnock said. "But the most important piece is the socialization. They're going to be with their brothers and sisters. … They can sort of let their shields down a little bit, and they can socialize."

That's what Michael Matthews, a medically retired Army staff sergeant who lives in Katy, is looking forward to the most. "People I've met who have been involved in Soldier Rides say it's one of the best experiences they've had," he said.

Matthews was injured in 2003 when an IED exploded near his vehicle in Mosul, Iraq. He spent three weeks in a coma and went home with a broken jaw and injuries all over his body, especially his head and shoulders.

"Since 2004, I've probably had two surgeries a year," he said.

The procedures have replaced parts of his shoulder and removed shrapnel from his head.

Matthews, 34, has been back in Houston — his hometown — since 2010 with his wife, who's also an Army vet, and their three kids. He has signed up for dozens of Wounded Warrior Project events, from horseback riding to kayak basketball. Doing something physical together is a fast way to bond with fellow veterans, Matthews said.

"Usually by the second or third day, everybody has this attitude like they've been knowing each other for years," he said. The veterans may start out as strangers, he said, but pretty soon "everybody's having a great time, they're encouraging each other and just doing a lot of positive things with each other."

The Soldier Ride started a decade ago, when civilian Chris Carney rode his bike across the United States to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.

The next year, Carney made the ride again - this time with a few veterans joining him. By 2007, seven regional Soldier Rides had developed.

At the 19 rides across the U.S. this year, wounded veterans are provided bikes and transportation, hotel rooms and meals. And they can sign up to ride no matter what their injuries are.

"We will adapt the bike to any new norm, whatever that might be, so they can go out and do what they did when they were kids: ride a bike," Schnock said.

Although this will be Matthews' first Soldier Ride, he has seen firsthand the difference Wounded Warrior programs can make.

"It's helped a lot of people that I know personally," he said. "A lot of these guys, they didn't know what else to do. I've seen people go from basically (being) ready to end it all and walk away from everything to … starting their own businesses and reconnecting with family. It does a lot of good."

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