A hero’s welcome for Soldier Ride

The North Fork will have a chance to honor recently injured soldiers on Saturday, Sept. 18, just weeks after the end of official combat operations in Iraq.

The first North Fork Soldier Ride, a bicycle event sponsored by the Florida-based Wounded Warriors Project, is designed to give soldiers recovering from wounds a physical goal to strive for while providing them with a reminder of the public’s appreciation for their sacrifices. Civilians will have a chance to ride alongside soldiers and join them in honoring their fallen comrades at memorials throughout Southold Town.

Laurel resident Dennis O’Donnell is running the ride after having participated in Soldier Rides on the South Fork over the past two years. Though he “never had the privilege to serve,” as he tells soldiers he rides with, his son is still serving in the Army in Iraq as part of the transition force that remained in the country after the official Aug. 31 end of U.S. combat operations.

Mr. O’Donnell, 52, is a former distance runner who began cycling seriously three years ago. He had been looking for something to do to help returning soldiers when he heard about the East End’s first Wounded Warrior ride in Amagansett. He and a friend raised $3,500 in pledges and were hooked on future rides.

“I’m from the Vietnam era and I saw what a terrible return they had,” he said of soldiers coming home from that war. “We civilians have become so isolated from war. It’s not on the television all the time anymore. When I was a kid, Vietnam was on TV every night. Now you hear mention of it in the media but they touch on it and move on quickly.”

He said that from the moment he decided he wanted to run a ride on the North Fork, he was overwhelmed with offers of help.

“The feeling in the area is that people want to connect with warriors but they don’t know how,” he said. “Soldier Ride serves so many different purposes. One is to connect civilians with soldiers. You see the eyes of the soldiers when you’re greeted at the event. They’re overwhelmed by the love that flows over them.”

North Fork’s ride will begin at Mitchell Park in Greenport. The 15-mile group ride will have stops at the American Legions in Southold and Mattituck. If they want, riders can continue for 5-, 10-, 30- or 40-mile loops. Registration opens at 7:30 a.m. at Mitchell Park, followed by a ceremony at the park at 8:30. The rides start at 9 a.m.

Civilians who join the ride help Wounded Warrior with their entrance fees of $50 for those over 21, $25 for those under 21. Anyone can register to join the ride by visiting and selecting New York rides. They can also register at Mitchell Park the day of the ride.

The dozen soldiers who will participate are from all over the country and different branches of the armed services. Staff at their medical centers use Soldier Rides around the country as physical goals for them to strive for. The Soldier Ride organization pays for their cycling equipment, which is retrofitted to enable them to ride despite amputations. Local families and businesses provide them with housing, transportation and meals, enabling them to take a weekend break from hospital life. “When you’re riding with double amputees below the waist, hand-cycling 30 to 60 miles in the heat, and you’re able-bodied and struggling, it puts things in perspective,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “Many are missing limbs, but they haven’t lost their sense of patriotism. They’re not cynical. They blow me away. I’ve been beaten by many of them.”

Sam Cila, an Army veteran and Ironman triathlete from Riverhead who lost his arm in Baghdad in 2005, will give the soldiers a pep talk when they arrive on the North Fork the night before the ride.

“I was in pretty bad shape when I first got back,” he said. “What helped me through my struggle was having a team. Your team is your lifeline when you’re dealing with injuries. You need to have a strong team to battle some of the stuff that goes on, and also to attack the next challenge that is facing you.”

Mr. Cila credits his wife and children as his immediate team, but his Ironman team also gets help from a group called Operation Rebound, which has helped the team compete in the Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii in October. Next week the team will be in Budapest for another competition.

“I have a great team around me, just like in combat,” he said. “My big thing is to remind the guys that they’re still warriors, they’re still athletes. They still need to attack all challenges. As soldiers, it’s your job to attack challenges. For me, losing an arm, as traumatic as it was, was almost a gift. I’ve done more with one hand than I did with two.”

“All levels of ridership are welcome. It’s not just for the professional,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “Families and young people are invited. We want them to make more contact with soldiers. There are routes that fit all levels of ability.”

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