WASHINGTON — Mary McGriff never thought she’d be riding a bike, let alone riding one for about 70 miles.
When the former Air Force captain returned from Iraq in January 2005, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The stress, adrenaline and fear combined with a stint as a volunteer at the hospital at Balad Air Base helping unload casualties from helicopters had done a number on her spine and left her with balance and dizziness problems.
But McGriff recently rode in the Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride around Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland in the company of other injured veterans, not only challenging herself physically, but finding some healing through bonding with others who understood what she had been through.
“That’s when I truly knew I wasn’t alone,” said McGriff, who rides a recumbent bicycle because of her balance issues. “The camaraderie, meeting people with the same issues as I have, was great. And seeing others that were coming out of (Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) hospital, actually able to ride even though they may be amputees, was very encouraging.”
Fifty wounded warriors participated in the D.C. Soldier Ride from April 18 to 20, taking to suburban trails and even around the White House on adaptive bikes tailored to their particular injuries.
The D.C. Soldier Ride is one of 17 around the country that fits injured veterans with cycling gear and a bicycle as part of a rehabilitation process, modifying the bikes with special pedals or pairing them with hand cycles or trikes to accommodate various injuries and disabilities.
“Warriors need to know that we can still do the same things that we did before, or new things that we never tried before,” said Michael Owens, a former Marine who lost an arm and shattered both legs in a truck accident in Iraq and rode in last year’s Soldier Ride. “It’s essential when it comes to recovery.”
The injuries for those in this year’s ride ranged from PTSD and back injuries to traumatic brain injuries and double amputees.
The goal of the ride: teaching troops that staying healthy isn’t out of the question even after traumatic injuries.
“We teach them that after injury, you can still ride a bike, you can still do simple things in life,” said Angela Hemmen, an organizer for Soldier Ride D.C. “You can still exercise. It may just look a little different than before, but you can still live a healthy and active lifestyle.”
The wounded warriors themselves were a source of inspiration to the uninjured cyclists in the ride.
“It’s encouraging that they can come back and still be able to do some of the things that they did before, even though they have greater limitations now or other obstacles that they have to face that they didn’t have to face before,” said MSgt. Jerry Harms, an Air Force recruiter riding for the first time. “If these folks can do it, you can do it.
The ride also involves nutritionists, physical therapists and bike technicians who help with the veterans’ rehabilitation.
“It doesn’t matter when the last time you rode a bike was, or what your injury is, or what your ability is,” Hemmen said. “Everyone can ride a bike. It sounds far, and it is far, but it’s a challenge.”
This year’s ride took the cyclists around the White House where President Barack Obama and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki high-fived the riders as they took a spin on White House grounds. The four-day event also included a 16-mile ride in the rain along Washington and Old Dominion Trail in Virginia, followed by rides in Annapolis and a hilly challenge in Friendship, Md.
“We take it little by little,” said McGriff, whose new goal is to be able to complete a cross country ride. “Once the days are done, you realize, ‘Wow, what an accomplishment to have actually done it.’”