Wounded Iraq War veteran Ryan Kelly may be far away from the battlefields, but he hasn’t lost the connection to his fellow American soldiers.
Kelly continues to try to make a difference in the lives of U.S. soldiers.
Kelly is one of dozens of disabled soldiers who are cycling across the country in support of their fellow injured soldiers in Soldier Ride, which started from Mothers Beach in Marina del Rey Saturday, May 21st.
Kelly, 24, who currently lives in Prescott Valley, Arizona with his wife, Lindsey, was serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserves when he suffered a severe injury in July 2003 that caused him to have his right leg amputated below the knee.
The injury may have taken away Kelly’s ability to serve his country on the battlefield, but he didn’t allow the injury to affect his bond with fellow soldiers.
“I still feel like I’m part of a team because I still look after guys in uniform,” Kelly said last week.
During his three months of service in Iraq, Kelly was primarily stationed in Al Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and worked with the Iraqi civilian population.
While on the way to a conference on schools and hospitals, Kelly’s Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb and the blast removed part of his leg.
Many people affected by such an injury might consider the injury a life-changing obstacle, but Kelly said it has only provided “redirection” into how he approaches life now.
Having a missing limb certainly hasn’t prevented him from doing what he can to help other soldiers who may share a similar experience.
“We’re making sure that the next crew that gets hurt all have the same opportunities to succeed and enjoy life after injury,” said Kelly, a military medal recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Valor.
One unique way that Kelly is trying to assist his fellow soldiers is by participating with other war veterans in a challenging 4,200-mile bicycle ride known as Soldier Ride coast-to-coast across the U.S..
Soldier Ride took off from its starting location at Mothers Beach at 9 a.m. Saturday morning.
Riders in Soldier Ride seek to raise money and awareness for severely wounded service members and their families.
The bike ride, which is in its second year, supports the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the new generation of severely wounded service members.
Ride organizers hope to exceed last year’s inaugural fundraising effort of $2 million by raising $5 million this year, said Regis Mencer of Advice Unlimited, which runs the event outreach.
Dozens of disabled soldiers and cyclists, including Kelly, gathered at the Marina beach to begin what will be a two-month journey expected to end Tuesday, July 19th, in Montauk on New York’s Long Island.
Other riders are expected to join the starting group at various stops along the way.
Depending on their disability, riders are given a bicycle and a special prosthetic limb to help pedal, and some riders will use a three-wheeled bike, Mencer said.
Family members of the Soldier Ride cyclists joined in the launch in the Marina and the Manhattan Beach Middle School choir gave a performance to send off the determined riders on their national trek.
Soldier Ride will take disabled riders to many major city stops along the way, including Las Vegas, Denver, St. Louis, Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York City.
“It’s a neat way to see the country,” Kelly said.
While the group of cyclists is composed of service members with different backgrounds and war experiences, Kelly said he knows a majority of the riders participating.
One rider who shares a close bond with Kelly is Heath Calhoun.
Calhoun, 25, who lives in Fort Campbell, Kentucky with his wife, Tiffany, and two children, was serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq when he suffered a severe injury in November 2003, causing both legs to be amputated above the knees.
Both Kelly and Calhoun took part in a portion of Soldier Ride last year with another rider, Chris Carney. When Carney finished the ride last year, the feat inspired Kelly and Calhoun to complete the journey on their own this year.
“I said, if they ended up doing it again, that I wanted to be a part of it and do the whole thing,” Kelly said.
“It’s a great event and a great cause,” Calhoun said of the ride. “I wanted to be more a part of it than I was last year.”
Calhoun also said the ride will allow him to give something back to other soldiers who become wounded.
“I wanted to help those next guys coming in that need it,” he said.
Although both Calhoun and Kelly acknowledge that they may face quite a challenge in the ride because they only recently started to train, Kelly emphasized that the journey is not so much about the achievement but about the cause.
The ride is sure to offer its share of physical tests for the cyclists involved, but Kelly said that for him it will “mostly be mental” and he will take it day by day.
“My focus now will be on doing it every day as well as possible,” he said.
Kelly said that when he finally pedals across the finish line in Montauk July 19th, marking the end of a path that began two months earlier in the Marina, it will certainly be a sign of accomplishment.
“It’ll be huge that I’ve done it,” he said.
After Kelly reaches his goal of finishing Soldier Ride, he will head back home to Arizona, where he will continue his education and pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a helicopter pilot.
He will also continue to work on getting legislation passed through Congress that would enable disabled veterans to receive disability insurance and not just life insurance.
His fellow soldiers say that Kelly continues to prove that he won’t allow his disability to be an obstacle in his life and that wherever he may go, he will never lose the bond that exists among American soldiers.
“We always take care of our brothers,” he said.