Heath Calhoun is cycling across America. Because he has no legs, he is doing this with his hands, pushing his pedals mightily up the sides of mountains, through rolling stretches of farmland, across suburban byways and city streets, with one idea in mind: that the country, which may be forgetting, needs to remember its wounded soldiers.
They are women and men like him, returned from duty in Iraq — and some from Afghanistan — without a leg or an arm or an eye or a hand, troops who lived when others died but who have a long way to go as they recover and rebuild.
“A lot of people think that the war is over, but Iraqis are still shooting at us every day,” Calhoun, 26, said during a break near the White House, poised on his three-wheel hand cycle and surrounded by 50 other bicycle-mounted troops and supporters. “The wounded need their country’s support.”
With more than 3,500 miles behind them, Calhoun and two other riders yesterday brought their cross-country fundraising effort, Soldier Ride 2005, into Washington, to meet with President Bush in the morning and try to raise awareness about how many in the military are coming home injured. The latest Pentagon tallies show 13,336 wounded in Iraq and another 511 in the war on terrorism.
Here, as in other cities, the soldiers and other members of the military were joined in their journey by local wounded — about a dozen in all — some of whom would ride with them for a few hours, or a day, or a leg of their trip. That was part of the organizers’ goal: to inspire can-do thinking and physical activity among those with debilitating injuries.
“The greatest disability is in your mind, not your body,” said Army Capt. Marc Giammatteo, 27, who lost half his right leg below the knee in an ambush in Iraq in January 2004 and has had more than 30 surgeries. He counted himself lucky to be able to join the last 350 miles of the trip; six months ago, he could not have imagined himself on a bike.
Lonnie Moore, 29, an Army captain who lost his right leg in April 2004 after a rocket-propelled grenade hit the turret of his Bradley Fighting Vehicle outside Ramadi, Iraq, was similarly determined to ride using his remaining leg. The fundraising is important, he said. All money pledged will go to the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project, which is a major source of help — moral, financial and therapeutic — for the military’s injured, organizers said.
“Most people don’t understand or are numb to the fact that more soldiers have been hurt this year than last year,” Moore said. Thinking about it, he guessed that “it’s kind of like 9/11. People just hear about it for so long and then they just kind of forget about it. But it’s not something you can forget about. These people have put their lives on the line.”
As Moore spoke, a passerby in a ball cap noted his evident injury, walked up and shook Moore’s hand. “Thank you, young man,” the man said, looking Moore in the eyes.
Moore said he was appreciative, and then he looked at Calhoun, ready for another day of pedaling his low-slung cycle. This was Day 51 of a ride that began in Marina del Rey, Calif., and would not end until July 18 in Montauk, N.Y. The riders average 70 to 90 miles a day.
“He’s an inspiration,” Moore said of Calhoun.
Calhoun is as strong in his physical feats as he is in his cause. Injured in Iraq in November 2003 when a grenade exploded in his truck, the retired staff sergeant said it had been a lengthy rebound to a life that is permanently changed.
“Those of us injured will recover for the rest of our lives,” said Calhoun, of Kentucky, a father of two with one more on the way.
Calhoun said it is important that people across the nation recognize this generation of the wartime wounded, whether or not they belong to a military family or support the war.
“We’re trying to touch everyone and trying to show that these soldiers are from their country, their cities, their states,” he said.
The idea for Soldier Ride started with Chris Carney, 35, a Long Island, N.Y., bartender who organized a fundraiser for an injured soldier and eventually visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center, glimpsing the bigger picture. “As soon as you get to the hospital,” he said, “You wonder what more you can do.”
Carney did the coast-to-coast ride by himself last year, joined by wounded troops along the way, and raised $2 million for the Wounded Warrior Project during the event.
This year, Calhoun and retired Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Kelly joined in for the full distance.
Many more troops have participated, and anyone is welcome to ride.
Contributions are fewer than last year, with less than $400,000 raised so far.
Many people talk about keeping troops in their thoughts and prayers, he said, but more tangible support is needed, too. “When you see these kids in the hospital, they are so positive,” Carney said. “They don’t want to live on benefits. They want to get out and do things.”
Today, the ride heads to Annapolis and then Baltimore, with stops to see Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a crowd at the U.S. Naval Academy and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.