Empowering wounded warriors to establish 'new normal'
January 9, 2012
RHEINLAND, Germany (Jan. 9, 2012) -- Halfway along a 24-mile bike route through the German countryside of Rheinland Pfalz, Staff Sgt. Barry Homberg took a break from pedaling to refuel and reflect on a journey that had been longer than the 11 miles he'd already pedaled that crisp autumn day.
Homberg's journey began almost five years ago with a mission in Ramadi, Iraq, that ended when two 7.62 mm rounds struck him in his right calf and hip. After spending 22 months recovering at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and an assignment to the Warrior Transition Battalion in Europe, Homberg was on his way to Trier, Germany, on a custom Catrike 700 recumbent trike as a participant in a rehabilitative cycling event.
"This opportunity is a building block to get me back on track to living a normal life -- a building block that will be with me for the rest of my life," said Homberg, a member of the Europe Regional Medical Command's WTB.
And although the Annapolis, Md., native will encounter many obstacles and challenges along his road to recovery, this is not a road he has to travel alone, thanks in part to Soldier Ride.
Soldier Ride is a Wounded Warrior Project initiative designed to help the newest generation of wounded warriors restore their physical and emotional well-being. Homberg and 47 other wounded warriors participated in the first European Soldier Ride in early fall.
The event provided rehabilitative cycling opportunities to wounded warriors not only from the U.S., but also Germany, Georgia and Romania. Its goal was to help participants continue rebuilding their confidence and strength in a supportive environment.
Dan Schnock, director of Soldier Ride, said the principle behind the program is to serve as a catalyst to empower wounded service members.
"The program gives them a chance to look at others with the same injury and say, 'If they're doing it, then so can I,'" said Schnock, who retired from the Army after 22 years. "The things they used to do before their injury, like ride a bicycle, they can continue to do. And if they can continue to do that, maybe they can continue to do some of the other things as well. Soldier Ride helps wounded warriors learn what their new normal is in life."
According to WTB Commander Lt. Col. Michael Richardson, expanding the Europe Soldier Ride to include coalition partners was key to its success.
"That coalition partner that we have by our side in combat is just as important during times of recovery as they are on the battlefield," said Richardson. "It broadens the scope on how real this is and is a testament of the strong U.S. and coalition relationship."
Georgian army Senior Lt. George Arabuli said he appreciates the opportunity to take part in Soldier Ride and considers this part of a second chance at life.
"I believe I am very fortunate to be here," said Arabuli, who lost his right leg after he stepped on an improvised explosive device, or IED, during a dismounted patrol in Musa Qala, Afghanistan. "This is the best time for me. It's a time to focus and think about what is truly important to me."
For retired Staff Sgt. Dan Nevins, director of Warriors Speak, a WWP program that trains wounded warriors to share their stories as professional spokespersons, Soldier Ride not only helped him reintegrate back into society, but also became a way of life and a means for him to give back.
"Soldier Ride is a love and a passion. The Wounded Warrior Project is a family and a calling," said Nevins, who lost both his legs in an IED blast during convoy operations in Afghanistan in 2004.
"The WWP logo, one warrior carrying another off the battlefield, is significant to me," Nevins said. "I started my journey as the warrior being carried and now I'm the one helping carry other Soldiers. I want to be there for them like this organization was there for me."
Homberg also has plans to give back. Before reenlisting to stay in the Army "indefinitely" in September 2010, he became part of the Continuation on Active Duty Program, where he now serves as WTB cadre, helping other wounded Soldiers on their road to recovery.
"The process of recovery can be difficult and I want to be there to help them get through it," said Homberg, who wears the round taken from his hip around his neck as a reminder of his own journey. "It is important that they have someone who knows what it is like and can help them every step of the way. I am making sure that these Soldiers are not forgotten."
THE WOUNDED WARRIOR PROGRAM AND SOLDIER RIDE
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 44,000 members of the U.S. armed forces have been severely injured during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This includes amputations, traumatic brain injuries and burns. Additionally, 300,000 service members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. That's equivalent to more than 20 percent of active-duty military personnel.
Whether they suffer from PTSD or the loss of a limb, these wounded warriors need a great deal of mental, emotional and physical support to cope with these life-altering events.
The Wounded Warrior Project, headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., is a nonprofit organization, established in 2003 to provide basic necessities and comfort items to wounded service members returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, the organization has transformed into a rehabilitative support network and a means of helping service members recover and successfully reintegrate into the civilian world.
The purpose of the WWP is three-fold: To provide unique, direct programs and services that meet the needs of injured service members; to help injured service members assist each other; and to raise awareness and enlist the public's aid for the needs of injured service members.
The project sparked the interest of Long Island, N.Y., native Chris Carney, who rode his bicycle more than 5,000 miles and raised more than $1 million for the WWP in 2004.
The following years brought more riders and supporters and continued to raise awareness, helping establish Soldier Ride, a program that provides rehabilitative cycling opportunities for wounded warriors to help restore their physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Soldier Ride is often the first experience wounded warriors have with the WWP, according to Albion Giordano, WWP's co-founder and executive director, and it serves as a bridge to the other programs warriors use along their roads to recovery.
"Although we are very big on adaptive sports and physical and mental health, economic empowerment is key as well," said Giordano, a disabled Marine veteran. "You can't just key in on one particular aspect, you have to take a holistic approach. If we can find a warrior employment, but don't address his combat stress issues, how successful is he going to be? The whole key here is we want the warriors to successfully reintegrate back into society."
For more information on the WWP and Soldier Ride, visit www.woundedwarriorproject.org.
Staff Sgt. Brooks Fletcher works for U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs.