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Wounded Iraq, Afghanistan vets cycling to Keys

Army Staff Sgt. Russell Dennison and Spc. Calvin Todd, both 24, served together and lost legs together, just three months ago in Afghanistan.

Now, they’re on their first outing together from Walter Reed Hospital — among dozens of U.S. military veterans taking part in a Soldier Ride from Miami through the Florida Keys.

“I haven’t been on a bike since I got blown up,” said Todd, a combat medic who was learning how to fit his prosthetic leg into a new bicycle Wednesday in the parking lot of a hotel in Aventura.

Nearby, his platoon sergeant, Dennison, was being fitted with a recumbent bike to fit both prosthetic legs, replacements for the limbs he lost in battle Oct. 4 in Afghanistan.

“He and I got hit 30 seconds apart,” explained Todd. “He got blown up, and I took off running to him, and I got blown up.”

This is the eighth year of the Soldier Ride through the Keys, now under the banner of the Wounded Warrior Project. And Walter Reed occupational therapist Harvey Naranjo signed 10 of his U.S. Army and Marines patients up for their first full-fledged outing from the military hospital since their injuries.

Or, as Todd put it, using the lingo that is commonplace back at his base, Fort Stewart, Ga., he was “volun-told” to take the trip.

So like a good soldier, he declared himself eager to do it.

“These guys are all studs. They’re all athletes,” declared Naranjo, himself a former U.S. Army combat medic. ”The expectations are going to be high for them.”

The Soldier Ride starts Thursday morning on South Beach, a warm-up spin that takes the cyclists across the Venetian Causeway to Marlins Stadium.

Friday, they start their ride south in Key Largo, including across the fabled seven-mile bridge — the latest journey in a series of trips that ride founder Dan Schnock estimated has put 1,000 disabled veterans on a range of styles of bikes across the country and in Europe and Israel since 2004.

This trip also includes a swim with the dolphins in Marathon and a trolley ride in Key West .

Most of the cyclists are medically retired service members, like retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Brian Scheifer, 29, who broke his spine in a Humvee roll in a training exercise in California between his third and fourth deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

This week he has brought his hand-cycle from his Miramar Beach home, near Destin. He has never ridden his bike further than 15 miles and now is about to take his longest hand-pedaled ride ever, through the Keys.

“I’m up for the challenge,” he said, noting, “I work out a bit.”

Plus, after a recent deer hunting outing to Georgia with the Wounded Warriors, the airman turned Defense Department contractor is bullish about the comradery.

“You’re as fast as your slowest guy,” he said, noting that since he can hand pedal the bike to speeds of 20-25 miles-per-hour he didn’t want to be at the back of the pack. “Hope not,” he said.

For many of these men, who’ve seen the world in the uniform of the U.S. military, this is their first visit to Miami and the Keys. Dennison is from Illinois, Todd is from New Hampshire. And Scheifer is a Michigan native who moved south after his injury to set up a business, and also for the weather.

At 29, he sounds like a classic snowbird on his first ever visit to Miami. “I love warm weather,” he said.