ST. CLOUD – Walt Eatman watched with a great deal of pride as a group of bicyclists rode past him on U.S. 192 in St. Cloud.
“We lined the streets, we waved the flags, and the smile on their faces was incredible when they saw that,” Eatman said. “Then we provided them lunch, and they headed on. This is the first time that they actually have come through Osceola County and had lunch here.”
What is most inspiring, he added, is that the bicycle riders are all military veterans – and members of the Ride to Recovery (R2R) group, made up of 178 “wounded warriors” with various degrees of disabilities. Their mission: to raise funds for, and heighten awareness about, the Wounded Warrior Project, which assists veterans who have sustained permanent disabilities during their service overseas.
“The Wounded Warrior Project is all the warriors who come home who are amputees,” said Eatman, a Vietnam veteran and the American Legion’s Department of Florida homeless veterans chairman. “A lot of these bicycle riders have specially made bicycles, if they don’t have legs or don’t have hands, or only one leg or only one arm. There are other veterans riding with them on their bicycles who are not disabled. They left Cape Canaveral this morning, and came down Nova Road to (U.S.) 192. We had the police escort them along the way.”
The bicycle riders are OEF/OIF veterans who left from Jacksonville and are on their way to Tampa. This morning, they left Brevard County and rode on State Road 520, stopping at American Legion Post 80 in St. Cloud for lunch around 11:30.
An hour later, they continued on U.S. 192 until they hit a rest stop at the K-Mart in Kissimmee, then rode on State Road 535 into Lake Buena Vista, with plans for stopping overnight at the Sheraton Safari Hotel in the Disney Village area.
On Saturday morning, the group leaves for Winter Haven, where they will spend the night, and then move on to Tampa on Sunday.
“What they’re actually doing is called the Florida challenge,” Eatman said. “It started in Jacksonville. They will ride their bicycles to Tampa, and this ride is being sponsored by the USO” — a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to support the troops – “and United Health Care. They’ve got other sponsors as well. The corporate sponsors actually paid them for the models that they ride, and the money raised goes to the Wounded Warrior Project.”
Despite the rain on Friday, Eatman said it great to see the veterans – all of them young soldiers in their 20s and early 30s – taking part in this effort.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was 180 of them coming through St. Cloud. They will be spending the night at the Sheraton Safari on (SR) 535, then tomorrow morning they’ll get up and go to Winter Haven and spend the night there, and then from Winter Haven they head into Tampa. This is the first time doing it this way. Normally they would fly into Tampa and ride to Jacksonville. This is the first time they have actually come through Jacksonville into Osceola County. The American Legion provided them with lunch, and we had police escorts with them through (U.S.) 192. It was just a wonderful job done by all.”
Cathy Haynes of Orlando, a member of numerous veterans and military organizations, turned out on Friday to watch the bicyclists and show support for their efforts.
“We were there to cheer and wave them on,” she said. “It’s great. It is so inspirational. You just feel so proud of these warriors. There were four groups of them, and they travel like in a pack. You feel so proud, knowing that some of them are in various stages of healing from wounds that are visible — and some that are not visible. This is a way for some of them to be exorcising the demons they may have. There was one cyclists who had lost both legs, and was using his hands to do it. We need more technology like that to help out these challenges. But they love having people cheering them on along the side of the road, because that’s healing, too.”
The Wounded Warrior Project was started in 2002 in Roanoke, Virginia by John Melia, who had himself been severely wounded in a helicopter crash while serving in Somalia in 1991. It’s a nonprofit organization committed to honoring and empowering other wounded members of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The organization’s web site notes that “The Wounded Warrior Project works to raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of severely injured service men and women, to help severely injured service members aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs.”
Eatman said it’s important to keep in mind that America has been fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade, so today’s veterans are not just veterans of wars like Korea and Vietnam who are now at retirement age. Today’s veterans, he said, are college-age young people.
“They’re all in their younger 20s,” he said. “There were men and women veterans, some were burned, some were missing a limb. This is done to raise awareness of our young veterans. They realize now they have the support from the veterans groups, particularly us Vietnam veterans, so they do not feel the way we felt when we came home.”
It’s also important to keep in mind, he said, that when the war in Iraq reaches a drawdown at the end of this year, the soldiers serving there now will be coming home – and in need of assistance.
“You’ve got your American Legions and other organizations who are outdoing themselves to make these veterans feel at home and have a support group and help with their needs, and get them registered into programs so they are not by themselves,” Eatman said. “The Veterans Administration, they’re doing the best they can, but there’s a serious backlog. Veterans organizations are stepping up as best they can to help, but the VA is not totally prepared yet.
“When this drawdown happens, and we get another 12,000 vets coming home, the system will be overwhelmed,” he added. “That’s our major concern. Hopefully, the Veterans Administration and the government steps up and gets prepared for them. All of these veterans are going to be looking for jobs.”
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