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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Wounded American soldiers bike through Israel

From the Friends of the IDF, via email:
On October 13, nine American war veterans who were wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan travelled to Israel and joined IDF wounded veterans on an unforgettable cycling trip across the Jewish Homeland.

The 11-day cycling mission to Israel was a joint initiative of the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and Friends of the IDF. The WWP organization provides wounded American veterans with physical and emotional support during their healing process. The much-anticipated trip came about after four years of successful collaboration between the two organizations and multiple American-Israeli bike rides in the U.S.

Four years ago, WWP reached out to FIDF and invited wounded soldiers from the IDF to join the New York Tri-State Soldier Ride, taking place every summer. The WWP Soldier Ride provides cycling opportunities across the U.S. for wounded American warriors. All participants suffering from a disability are provided with the adaptive equipment they need to cycle. In addition to organizing challenging and enjoyable rides, the Soldier Ride program also raises awareness for issues and hardships American wounded veterans face on a daily basis.

Since that summer, IDF soldiers have travelled to New York every year for a ride, which has come to symbolize the profound friendship and solidarity shared by the soldiers. Although they fight in different arenas, soldiers from both countries feel that they are fighting for a similar cause and face similar dangers, and that everything they have experienced during and after the injury brings them closer together.

This year, the WWP organization decided to take its Soldier Ride program overseas for the first time. Since the bond with the IDF soldiers and FIDF has become so strong, WWP chose Israel as its first international destination for the Soldier Ride. WWP wanted to give the American soldiers an opportunity to ride together with their Israeli friends in the latter’s home country. For the nine American veterans, it was the first visit to Israel and a rare opportunity to connect with Israeli soldiers and citizens.

The ride started off in the ancient Roman port city of Caesaria, continued up to the Lebanese border and then around the Sea of Galilee. From there, the soldiers rode through the Judean Hills, visited the Dead Sea, climbed the historic site of Masada, and toured around Jerusalem. In between, the American veterans were hosted by James Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and by officers and soldiers at three IDF bases, including the IDF’s central Induction Base at Tel Hashomer.

"We are truly honored and moved to see our American heroes riding alongside veterans of another nation’s armed forces and welcomed so warmly in Israel," says Steve Nardizzi, WWP executive director. "Not only does this mark a new chapter in WWP’s history, but it’s an opportunity for each participating warrior to forge an international friendship with a fellow warrior."

For Army Sergeant (ret.) Robert Laurent of the Armored Corps, who lost an eye and fingers on his left hand in an ambush in Adwar, Iraq, one of the highlights of the trip was seeing how personal the war is for his Israeli friends. "In our wars, we fly 12 hours or more to get there, but here, it can be just minutes from your home town. We have Canada and a whole lot of ocean separating us from the enemy, but for me to see how close the threat is to the Israelis… well, it’s just crazy."

Cycling together for 11 days across the rugged and awe-inspiring Israeli terrain meant that the wounded warriors had to stay determined, muster the strength and, like in battle, rely on one another for moral and physical support. Throughout the ride, the soldiers kept encouraging each other, and reminded themselves of what they had each learned after being injured; that they can achieve any goal they set.

Staff Sergeant (ret.) Ryan Kelly, who was hurt by shrapnel and lost half a leg when his convoy of unarmored humvees got hit, leads his life with a strong sense of purpose and drive. Kelly earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star of Valor for helping wounded comrades during the attack. After 13 months of rehab at Walter Reed, his prosthetic leg doesn’t prevent him from cross-country bike treks and all other forms of extreme sporting activity. "With a little bit of thought and lots of determination, you can do just about anything," he concludes.

Beyond the amazing experience of visiting Israel for the first time, the soldiers got a chance to share their passion for riding bikes and to once again celebrate their ability to do anything − even cycle through the entire state of Israel.