About 150 bikers cruised down California’s Pacific Coast Highway last month, enjoying the stunning ocean views at every turn. Nearly all of these bikes were pedaled, though some cranked adaptive cycles built for wounded veterans and a select few turned the throttle that revved a motorcycle escort.
The day started before sunrise for the newly formed American Legion Riders Chapter 43 in Hollywood. As the sun was coming up on Oct. 15 for their first official mission, they rode from Hollywood to Ventura where they met the Ride 2 Recovery California Challenge on its last leg of a seven-day bicycle ride from the VA Palo Alto Health Care System to the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, about 450 miles south.
This was the first official ride for the Legion Riders of Chapter 43. “It’s our veterans helping veterans,” said Ronnie Womble, Legion Riders Chapter 43 president. “I think the community impact is a huge deal. It really shows the riders they are not alone.”
The leather-clad motorcyclists juxtaposed the synthetic riding jerseys of the cyclists as they coordinated the route to the final stop 60 miles away. Legion Riders from across the country participated in the Ride 2 Recovery California Challenge.
Ride 2 Recovery Project Hero has built more than 200 adaptive bikes for injured veterans, donated more than 2,500 bikes to veterans and logged more than 30,000 bicycling miles in 30 states and six countries to bring hope, recovery and resilience. The organization was founded on cycling-based programs and has served more than 10,000 veterans.
“I’ve seen amputees out here, I’ve seen people with blindness, other disabilities, brain injuries, PTSD,” Womble said. “It shows that we can still do it, that we don’t need to be put aside or out to pasture. When you see these guys, what they’ve gone through, that’s really what this is. It’s just amazing.”
The Ride 2 Recovery California Challenge is one of the programs of Project Hero, designed to effect change that reduces drug-based therapies. The organization founded the Project Hero Research Institute for Mental Health to support clinical research programs in 2016. They build and donate adaptive bikes and produce cycling events throughout the nation, supporting community-based rehabilitation and recovery programs and important medical and clinical research. Project Hero is raising awareness of the national PTSD mental health crisis and making a difference in the lives of thousands of veterans and first responders, their families and communities.
The collaboration of motorcycles provided safety and security for the large group of bicycles as it traveled down Pacific Coast Highway, through Malibu, to the busy intersections of Santa Monica, until they finally reached the West Los Angeles VA.
The ride participants expressed gratitude that they had people helping and willing to support them, and the Legion Riders were just as happy to be a part of this operation.
“We all come from some kind of military background, and this is like being on a mission,” said Jeric Wilhelmsen, Chapter 43 Legion Rider and Post 43 past commander. “Riding out in front, controlling traffic, and protecting the group, it’s like being the tip of the spear again. It was a great feeling to be part of this team.”
Joe Coddington, a Marine veteran and avid cyclist, helps to improve the veteran experience on the rides. “Watching what happens, to these men and women who served, when Ride 2 Recovery gets them on a bike and they rediscover life, I have no words except that this is what bikes were meant to do.”
The Legion Riders escorted the group to the end of the ride and stayed for the celebration after party that included nearly 200 people, motivating speeches and live music.
California Sen. Josh Newman, an Army veteran, spoke to the crowd. “I am so impressed that these kind of efforts are not only physically demanding but emotionally demanding,” he said. “The mindfulness that you get from the week, I understand it’s been very healthy. I salute all the leaders of the program.”
American Legion Post 43 sponsored a food with support from post member Greg Alaimo, who has been volunteering with Ride 2 Recovery for five years. “It started out when I just attended one of these rides,” he said. “How can you not get involved after you see what they do? So now I do fundraisers, get whatever support I can, and just come out and support them.”
Post 43 Commander Fernando Rivero attended the after-party with his family. “It was really inspiring to see 140 wounded warriors, first responders … some with very obvious physical impairments and others that were carrying the burden of PTSD that were physical specimens, but you knew that they were battling things,” said Rivero. “It was really inspiring to be there and I hope that going forward we continue to do this and we get more involved.”
The day after the race, Coddington presented signed jerseys to the Legion Riders, part of cycling tradition to show thanks for supporting a particular ride. “We wanted to give you guys a keepsake that will forever mark the day you guys first did your jobs as Legion Riders,” Codding told Womble.
“You see all the teamwork, the camaraderie when it comes to the hills,” Womble said. “Nobody gets left behind. It’s really a sight and I wish that more people would get behind it.”
Coddington also presented a jersey to Rivero for the post. “Some people have 10 of these, there have been 10 events, so I challenge you commander to keep that going.” Rivero shared with the post how important the community involvement was. “When you get out there and see the real impact that our post is having and helping out our fellow veterans it’s truly heartwarming,” said Rivero.