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Injured veterans find unity in Virginia bike tour

rarriaza@vagazette.com

More than 50 wounded veterans and supporters fostered a sense of camaraderie after participating in a three-day, 200-mile bike tour across Central Virginia, which entered its final stretch in Williamsburg early Friday morning.

The UnitedHealthcare Memorial Challenge Bike Tour was organized in support of Project Hero, a national nonprofit organization focused on helping veterans and first responders recover from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. The tour began Wednesday in Glen Allen and took riders across Richmond and Williamsburg before concluding at Fort Lee in Bland on Friday afternoon.

Project Hero spokesman Peter Bylsma said cycling serves as a unique form of group therapy for the participants, who often struggle with adjusting to civilian life after suffering physical or psychological trauma on the battlefield.

“There’s a lot of therapeutic value to all of them getting together, you’ll hear them talking about camaraderie and family and that kind of thing, that’s what we engender, that’s what we create,” said Bylsma. “They benefit from the therapeutic interaction, the stuff that happens with the group where everyone can relate to each other in a special, unique way; maybe in a way that you and I, fortunately, can’t because we haven’t had some of those traumatic experiences.”

He says the participants ride two single-file lines, as opposed to the amorphous group riding pattern often found in other group cycling programs.

“It’s a sort of military discipline that allows them to break down and relax, and then all of a sudden, the person next to you is telling you about things that you can relate to and they know that you can relate to, but people in the outside world can’t, so there’s a real bond that’s built,” Bylsma said.

Angel Cuellar is a Marine Corps veteran from Fort Lee who was riding with Project Hero for the first time. She says the connection and the stories that she’s shared with the other cyclists has been an amazing experience.

“No matter what you’re going through and where you’re at, you’re not alone. You always have somebody to talk to and they can relate and you have a shoulder to lean on, so it’s just a really great message that you have people that care,” Cuellar said.

Jens Sondergaard is a veteran who served in Denmark’s armed forces and now suffers from involuntary leg spasms due to the injuries he sustained in combat. He says this is his second time participating in the tour after learning about it last year during a trip to Virginia Beach’s Patriotic Festival.

“I don’t have so much the psychological damage, I’m only physically wounded, it hurts to get on my feet and my legs have spasms, but after a long day on the hand cycle, they are all relaxed so that’s helped me,” said Sondergaard.

Jonathan Dade, a Navy veteran and chaplain with Project Hero, traveled from Texas to be part of the Memorial Challenge. He says the biggest help for all the veterans participating is the peer-to-peer, therapeutic connection that the tour encourages.

“One thing we all share is we were all in the military, we all know that we have the power to overcome, we just need to share with each other,” Dade said. “Also just not feeling ashamed, when you come out of the military, there’s a big stigma attached with being broken or hurting or depressed, but there’s nothing wrong with that.”

He says an important aspect of Project Hero’s cycling program is the level accessibility that it provides for veterans of any age and injury level. More than that, however, is the fact that simply gives veterans a reason to leave their homes and spend time with others.

“A lot of depression happens when you stay inside,” Dade said. “I had a good friend who literally didn’t leave his house for a whole year after he came back from deployment and it wasn’t until he went on a Project Hero ride that he finally stepped outside, so sometimes just getting out into the sunshine is huge.”

For more information about future bike tours, visit projecthero.org.

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

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