When Timothy Bosch introduced himself to Neil Boekel as they waited for a bird show at Jungle Island this week, the two veterans quickly realized they had a lot in common.
They are both 34 and joined Army infantry units in 2002. They may not have fought together, but they were in and around Afghanistan at the same time. Both were injured by a bomb — Boekel with a head and hip injuries, Bosch with injuries to the right side of his body.
They have similar memories of wartime: Using Vicks VapoRub to mask the smell of the dead, freezing in Baghdad and dealing with snow, the “taste of bad chow.”
The men, Bosch, from Orlando and Boekel from Fort Walton Beach, now hate being in crowded places and struggled with coping with “normal life” after being medically discharged from the Army.
But as the two men talked while walking through the Miami theme park as part of the Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride, they seemed relaxed, at peace.
“It’s nice being able to talk to someone who really understands what you went through,” Bosch said.
The visit to Jungle Island was the “ice breaker” for a group of 61 soldiers who came to South Florida on Wednesday for the Wounded Warrior Soldier Ride, a health and wellness program for those injured during military service. On Thursday, they went on a practice ride from South Beach to Marlins Park in Little Havana, where they got a tour and got to go out on the field.
“Everyone really seems to be enjoying it so far,” Nick Krauss, one of the founders of the Soldier Ride said Thursday. “There’s a lot of laughing and people having a good time.”
On Friday, they will leave from Key Largo and go over the seven-mile bridge. On Saturday, they will continue south to Key West, where they will snorkel, fish and tour the city. On Sunday, their final day, they will ride around Key West.
“We keep them busy the entire time,” said Daniel Schnock, the ride director. The experience, he said, incorporates four areas of rehabilitation, including mind, body, engagement and economic empowerment. “Socialization is a huge part of rehabilitation.”
Jungle Island offered the soldiers — some of whom came from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.— a behind-the-scenes tour.
“Jungle Island partners with many organizations throughout the year and this is one we are really passionate about,” said park spokeswoman Rachel Pinzur.
About 10 years ago, the Soldier Ride began as a “dumb idea in a bar,” and grew into a “multimillion-dollar fundraising effort” that is part of Jacksonville-based Wounded Warriors. Krauss said it was late in the evening in spring 2004 when he and three friends talked over a couple of beers at the Stephen Talkhouse in the Hamptons.
All of them either worked there or were part owners and none of them was a cyclist or knew anything about raising money for charity. Chris Carney, one of the four, said he’d get on his bike and ride cross country to raise money for wounded soldiers.
The four friends started promoting Carney’s idea, putting a beer pitcher outside of the bar and raising about $10,000 — most of which were pledges. So Carney was locked in. He took off from Long Island and rode 5,000 miles to San Diego.
While in Colorado, Carney met two wounded warriors who joined him for part of the ride.
Krauss said three things happened in Colorado: They realized people cared and were willing to donate. The wounded could participate. The ride would be rehabilitative.
Until 2006, the 5,000-mile cross country rides continued, but they grew to be too much, Krauss said. So in 2006 they decided to run regional rides, which are now held throughout the United States. More than 1,000 soldiers are taken on rides each year, Krauss said.
South Florida, which was the first regional ride, has been a staple because of the flat terrain, cooperation from local businesses and police departments and good weather. This year the group dined at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, will swim with the dolphins in Marathon and stay in hotels for free.
Krauss said the organization spends about $2,000 per soldier per ride depending on where the ride is held. The cost covers flights, meals, entertainment and transportation.
The experience, many times, is the first big outing from the military hospital for the wounded.
For Michelle Cassabon, 38, who joined the Air Force Security Forces in 1994 and separated from the military in 2004, the ride was a way to get back in shape and be around fellow veterans.
“It’s very calming to me to be around other soldiers,” said Cassabon, who said it’s the invisible injuries that often get overlooked. For nearly nine years after joining civilian life she struggled with anger and depression. In 2011 she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After getting help through the Veterans’ Administration, she is doing better and is now in school.
She said seeing other younger warriors — many of whom are missing limbs — was inspirational.
“Seeing them makes me want to keep going,” she said.
Boekel, participating for the first time, was injured on Nov. 14, 2007, when the vehicle he was in while serving in Baghdad was hit with an explosive device.
“I was knocked unconscious and other people fell on top of me,” he said. When he came to, he realized what had happened.
The platoon leader “died in my arms,” he said.
Boekel said the memories are still painful, but he is “a lot better now.”
Being with other soldiers, he said, was “therapeutic.”
Bosch, who did three full tours in war-torn areas including Afghanistan, said if it were up to him he would be “hiding in his house.” But being with fellow soldiers makes him feel safe.
“The heart of America is sitting right here,” he said. “It feels great to feel like you belong.”