Sand In My Shoes

We All Need Some Real Heroes

If ever we needed to celebrate real heroes, it is right now.

So, come take a ride.

The 15th Annual Soldier Ride — a celebration of and a fundraiser for the Wounded Warriors of America — departs at 8:30 AM on Saturday, July 21, from the Amagansett Farm at 551 Montauk Highway.

The idea for this bike-a-thon that has raised tens of millions of dollars for our wounded veterans who risked life and limb for the nation began in the Stephen Talkhouse bar in Amagansett in August of 2003.

“It started when we read a newspaper story about a wounded vet from Long Island named John Fernandez who got blown up and lost the lower portion of both legs in Iraq,” says Nick Kraus, manager of the popular bar. “Chris Carney, the bartender, said we should raise some money for Fernandez and his family. The owner, Peter Honerkamp, agreed. So did I. I’m not a vet, so I felt maybe the way for me to be of service was to do something to help a veteran who served and who had been badly wounded.”

The trio had been raising money for a Marine veteran named John Melia who had been injured in a helicopter fire in Somalia and spent agonizing time in various veterans hospitals where the bureaucratic wait for basic amenities and comforts of home added insult to his and other vets’ injuries.

“So, John Melia and a group of other wounded vets and volunteers gathered in the basement of his Roanoke, Virginia home and with the $5000 they’d raised, they were putting together backpacks for wounded vets in places like Walter Reed and Bethesda military hospitals,” said Kraus. “The backpacks had phone cards, books, a CD player, socks, shorts, and a t-shirt for the wounded vets. The backpacks were a huge hit.”

When the Talkhouse trio read about Fernandez, a local wounded vet, they decided to hold a benefit for the West Point grad who’d gone to Rocky Point High School. “We raised only a few thousand dollars,” Kraus said.

So, at the next fundraiser, they decided to put a pledge card table at the front door where Carney had promised to ride a bicycle from Montauk Point to San Diego if people would sponsor his 3000-mile trip.

“Suddenly we had over $10,000 in cash, checks, and pledges,” said Kraus. “Chris Carney had not been on a bicycle since high school and had never ridden more than a mile in his life. But now he had to pedal what we thought was 3000 miles but which turned out to be 4200 miles, because on a bike you can’t use highways. We looked at Chris and told him he had to do it because there was no way to return all these donations.”

So, Carney got himself a bicycle and started practicing. Kraus and a buddy tagged behind him in a car. “I drove 10 miles per hour across America,” said Kraus. “Along the way, two wounded Iraq vets named Staff Sergeant Heath Calhoun and Staff Sergeant Ryan Kelly — who had one leg between them and who’d heard about the trip — joined the ride.”

Kraus says they were all greeted by cheering crowds in every big American city and small town and rural village they rode through, eventually raising over $1 million.

“Three things became clear on that first Soldier Ride across America,” Kraus said. “One, the American public was eager to show their appreciation and support to the wounded vets. Two, it inspired the newly-injured veterans across the land who saw that there was a good and adaptable life after war wounds. Three, it showed people like me who had not served just how much those that did serve had sacrificed in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. These were pure heroes.”

By the time they got to San Diego, Calhoun and Kelly told Carney that they wanted to do the ride again the next year from Los Angeles to Montauk. “There really was no way to say no to two men who’d lost three legs for our country,” said Kraus.

Soon, with money from Soldier Ride, John Melia’s backpack mission became the Wounded Warriors of America. Soldier Ride has steered all the money it has raised every year since into this vital veterans’ organization.

“There are Soldier Rides in 30 different cities all over America now,” said Kraus. “The concept has spread to England, France, Germany, and Israel. Some of the wounded warriors who will be participating in this year’s Hamptons Community Ride are from England and Israel. Chris Carney’s crazy idea over drinks in the Stephen Talkhouse to ride a bicycle across the country has now raised tens of millions of dollars for our wounded warriors.”

Which is great because right now this land could sure use some old-fashioned American heroes. This could not happen at a better time in this divided country where the political chasm is the worst since the Civil War.

But politics should be left at home when we come out to honor the vets who have put their lives and limbs on the line for the United States of America. I have a brother who served with the 173rd Airborne in the Central Highlands of Vietnam 50 years ago, when the country was also torn apart over the issue of the Vietnam War. It took us 20 shameful years to honor the Vietnam vets who served in that brutal war with a memorial and the recognition they all deserved.

You can believe anything you want about the current state of politics in Washington, D.C., or about the politicians who make our endless wars. But the young men and women who fight and die or come home maimed from our wars are not the enemy. They are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives, our fathers and mothers, our friends and neighbors.

They are our heroes.

In a time when the country they served has devolved into red and blue restaurants, the wounded of our foreign wars are red, white, and blue American heroes.

Period.

Cherish them. Thank them. Support them. Join them.

Come out to Soldier Ride on Saturday and cheer real American heroes and leave the politics on your preferred cable news station at home.

“Soldier Ride is just a beautiful summer day to say thanks to our wounded warriors,” said Kraus. “We owe them that.”

Yes, we all do.

Ride on.

For more information visit: fundraise.woundedwarriorproject.org/srhamptons.

denishamill@gmail.com