It all started over beers at a Long Island bar: three friends were brainstorming ways to raise money and support for a local U.S. war veteran injured in Afghanistan.
Six years and millions of dollars raised later, their project, Soldier Ride, is now a national fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project, a private veteran assistance program aiding severely wounded veterans.
The Soldier Ride project began one night in 2004 at the Stephen Talkhouse, a well-known bar and music venue in Amagansett, New York, and continues this weekend with the New York leg of a now-annual long distance bicycle ride spanning more than 70 miles between Manhattan and Long Island's East End.
Over the next three days, about 40 wounded soldiers from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will take part in the ride. Five wounded veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces will also be along for this ride. Whether on recumbent, hand-peddled or upright bikes, the soldiers kicked off the New York ride Thursday morning in Manhattan at Macy's Herald Square.
For some soldiers, this is their first time participating in Soldier Ride. But others are returning riders, like 29-year-old retired Marine Jimmy Klingel of Wooster, Ohio. This is Klingel's third Soldier Ride but his first time to ride in New York. His first ride was in 2009 in Chicago, and he just completed the 2010 Chicago ride in June.
"I love it because you get to meet all different people from all parts of the area, and different parts of the country," Klingel said. "Everyone has their own unique injury or story, if you want to put it like that."
As for Klingel's own story, he served in the Marines from June 2001 to August 2005. He was deployed twice in Iraq with the lead element in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. While in Iraq, he was wounded during two separate incidents.
"April 5, 2003 I was wounded the first time by a rocket propelled grenade and that set me back in the hospital for three and a half months with shrapnel injuries to my backside and my thigh and my arms. I lost the hearing in my left ear and that was the first TBI -- Traumatic Brain Injury that I had received," Klingel said. "And a year to the day, April 5, 2004, we were deployed to Fallujah. I hit an IED. From that IED, I had broken both arms, legs, my back -- lots of shrapnel. I was in a coma for two and a half weeks and out of the six of us in the humvee, only myself and my passenger lived. The four others didn't make it."
He said the recovery process is still ongoing and will probably continue for the rest of his life. Because of his back injury, Klingel rode a two-wheel hybrid bike during the ride that allowed him to remain upright. Despite his injuries, he said he'll continue to take part in Soldier Ride for as long as it takes.
"For me, it's an honor to be a part of this," Klingel said.
Another soldier participating in this year's Soldier Ride is 22-year-old Matthew Castillo del Muro from Albuquerque, New Mexico. It's his first time to participate in Soldier Ride.
"I'm pretty pumped," Castillo del Muro said.
Castillo del Muro lost his lower right leg a little more than a month ago while serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
"I got injured on June 6, 2010. I stepped on a mine that was hooked up to a jug of HME -- homemade explosives and luckily the jug that was hooked to the mine didn't go off or else they said I would have been a lot worse if not dead," Castillo del Muro said.
While doing physical therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one of his therapists thought he'd be a good candidate for Soldier Ride, asked him if he wanted to do it, and he agreed.
"It's pretty cool. I didn't know that Wounded Warrior Project was this big and it's awesome that they would do stuff like this for us," Castillo del Muro said.
For both Klingel and Castillo del Muro, Soldier Ride comes down to the camaraderie.
"We're all family here. I don't have anything different than anybody else," Klingel said.
"It's awesome because you're surrounded by a group of guys who know what you're going through," Castillo del Muro said. "It's a lot easier to talk to them and it's cool to share what happened and see the different kind of injuries and the different kind of places."
Soldier Ride began in 2004 when co-founder Chris Carney of Long Island, New York rode his bike more than 4,000 miles across the country to support Wounded Warrior Project. Another co-founder, Nick Kraus, said this all started as a challenge and was never meant to become an annual event. But as Carney's journey across the country gained attention, two wounded veterans asked if they could join him.
Carney and several veterans continued the rides in 2005 and 2006. In 2007, Soldier Ride switched to a regional ride format with seven rides and has grown every year. This year, there will be a total of 10 regional rides across the country.
"I understand the need that soldiers have as they transition out of the military, into civilian life and I just really want to help," Soldier Ride Director Chris Roberts said.
Roberts said many soldiers who can no longer maintain the physical activity they were used to find riding a bike is a new form of physical fitness. But Roberts notes the benefits of Soldier Ride extend beyond physical activity.
"What is probably one of the most important aspects of Soldier Ride is that these guys can come together as a collective a group, the camaraderie that they build while there on this three or four day ride and becoming friends and sharing stories with one another that they normally wouldn't share with anyone else is really important," Roberts said.
This year, Roberts said he expects all ten national Soldier Ride to raise more than $500,000.
On Thursday, the soldiers will ride about 25 miles from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Friday, they'll continue on a ride through Babylon and Soldier Ride will conclude on Saturday as their ride finishes in the Hamptons. There are registered rides in both Babylon and the Hamptons that are open to public participation, as well.