South Florida’s 12th annual Soldier Ride kicked off Wednesday at Jungle Island, an all-expenses-paid week of fun, exercise, camaraderie and healing for disabled veterans, organized by the Wounded Warrior Project.
This year’s Soldier Ride brings together 32 disabled servicemen and women and gives them a taste for what South Florida has to offer: hospitality, warm weather and sunshine, and great respect for our veterans, according to a project founder.
For veterans Kevin “Precious” Matos and Trevor “Gamble” Snyder, the Wounded Warrior event will provide them with more than just a good time, it will give them opportunities to form meaningful friendships and a chance to push their social limits. The two men met in November, at a Wounded Warrior event in St. Augustine, and struck a close friendship after discovering that they struggled with many of the same physical and mental issues. Matos, 37, injured his back while serving a decade ago and acquired Guillain–Barré syndrome last year, threatening his ability to walk. Snyder, 30, blew out his knee in 2015 while serving on the Army National Guard. Despite their physical challenges, it was their mental hurdles that have been the toughest to overcome. Both men suffer from PTSD and social anxiety.
“I’m not good with people,” says Snyder, who joined the Marine Corps at age 17 and did two tours in Iraq. “I feel like I can be myself here, with other people who understand my situation and where I am coming from.”
Matos, who served in Germany and Iraq, concurred. “This program forces us to push our limits, to get ourselves out there. We suffer from social anxieties and it is really uplifting to be able to undergo this struggle with people who are like us.”
Wednesday afternoon, however, the two friends seemed to forget their social struggles, playing with the numerous animals they met, including a baby capuchin monkey that took turns jumping between them.
This week’s scheduled events also include a Jungle Island tour, escorted bicycle rides in Miami and Key West, and visits to Marlin Park in Little Havana and Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, where the veterans will have the chance to swim with the dolphins.
The Soldier Ride program was created in 2004 by Long Island residents Nick Kraus, Chris Carney and Peter Honerkamp, who looked to give back to the injured veteran community returning from the Iraq War. After encouragement and pledges from close friends, Carney volunteered to trek 5,000 miles on his bike from Long Island to San Diego. The trip proved to be immensely successful, raising thousands of dollars and boosting awareness throughout the nation. After a second trip the next year, the men’s efforts caught the attention of a similar budding nonprofit, the Wounded Warriors Project. The two groups would soon merge and form a partnership that has lasted until today.
Soldier Ride has become a staple of the Wounded Warrior agenda. The cross-country journey was replaced by regional rides in 2006, to incorporate the injured vets the initial ride was benefiting. Other activities unique to each host region were also added to help the veterans bond. Today, there are more than 20 rides every year throughout the U.S., as well as three rides in England, France and Israel. In total, 1,000 veterans are aided every year.
The South Florida Soldier Ride was the first of these regional rides in January 2006. And Wednesday, Jungle Island served as the program’s first stop. The Wounded Warriors were treated to private animal shows by park zookeepers, as well as meet-and-greet sessions with many of the park’s most popular animals: a baby tiger, a porcupine, penguins, a capuchin monkey and others.
“This is one of the most fun and fulfilling things we do all year,” said Jason Chatfield, Jungle Island vice president of zoological operations. “Allowing our veterans to ease their minds by interacting with our animals is very therapeutic, and it’s the least we can do since they lay everything on the line for us day in and day out.”
For Wounded Warrior Sebastiana Lopez Arellano, the Soldier Ride was a great way to interact with like-minded people who have gone through the same tough physical and emotional times she had. Lopez Arellano is still undergoing rehab at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for injuries she acquired during a motorcycle accident in February 2015. The accident left her in an induced coma for an entire month, and required multiple surgeries, including an amputation of her entire right leg, and reconstructive surgery on her left arm.
“Going through a trauma like I underwent individually can be so devastating,” Lopez Arellano said. “Everyone here has gone through similar experiences and it is organizations like these that bring us together to help us heal.”
Lopez Arellano had been serving as a crew chief in the Air Force at the time of her accident, and she hopes she can continue serving as one of their wounded ambassadors. She has five siblings who also serve, and maintains an active lifestyle, winning gold and silver medals at last year’s Invictus Games in Orlando in wheelchair rugby, track and field, and rowing events.
Soldier Ride co-founder Kraus was present at Wednesday’s event as well, now monitoring his program’s growth as a public relations official for Wounded Warriors. For him, even after the 13 years since the program’s inception, the message remains strong to give hope to these veterans.
“The fact that the program has continued has given me continued purpose. While it is also disappointing that the need is still there … I still see the accomplishments that are achieved by warriors, just even three days into weekend rides, seeing lives changed on a regular basis, and after how many years of doing this that the feeling is still not old for me. It’s very rewarding to be able to make a difference.”
Kraus credits the success of the South Florida Soldier Ride program to the wonderful community support.
“The support that we have received from the city of Miami and everyone in the Keys has been really unbelievable every year, from the police officers to the local businesses,” he said. “It is really quite humbling and is certainly one of the reasons we come down here every year.”