Warriors wounded in combat pedaled their bicycles past grateful children waving flags and cheering praise in a swirl of inspiration.
There was a symmetry Thursday morning between the inspired and the inspirers. In fact, it wasn’t clear which group was serving which role.
Ride 2 Recovery, the San Antonio-to-Dallas bicycle ride for wounded soldiers, left III Corps Headquarters and surged eastward on Tank Destroyer Boulevard past Meadows Elementary School.
As they have done for several years, students lined the sidewalk on the edge of their school just west of Fort Hood’s Main Gate. They held signs, cheered and shouted their support for the wounded warriors.
For the second year, little Diego Mercado caused a slight delay in the riders’ quick ride past the school.
After riding past hundreds of Meadows students, the bicyclists slowed to turn north onto 27th Street and many noticed Diego, dressed in full military uniform sitting on a three-wheeled bicycle.
Several bicyclists stretched out their hands to meet the smiling boy’s hand.
Halfway through, one rider stopped his bicycle in front of Diego. He pulled off a wristband and gave it to the boy. He also invited the 7-year-old, who has a bendable prosthetic leg, to be a wounded warrior.
“He took off his bracelet and gave it to me,” Diego said a few minutes after the end of the ride.
Lt. Jason Mercado, Diego’s father, stood nearby and took photos during the ride. When he noticed the exchange, he stepped in and took the bracelet for safekeeping.
The black memorial bracelet bore the name of a soldier and the date he fell in combat.
Mercado said his son, who first saw the Ride 2 Recovery last year, was thrilled to watch it again.
“It’s mutually beneficial,” the father said. “He was born with it. They went through a traumatic experience. I think they inspire each other.”
As students and staff members waited in the cold for the colorful wave of bicycles to appear around the bend, Diego’s teacher Mary Moreau said they were hoping for a fist bump.
They got a lot more than that.
“They asked him to be a wounded warrior,” a moist-eyed Moreau said after the ride. “He’s telling everyone.”
Following the official ride, Diego rode his three-wheeler into the school, and Moreau accompanied him through the hallways in his own “ride to recovery.”
The kindergarten teacher said the Mercados let their son keep the donated bicycle at the school so he can get some extra exercise riding to the playground each day.
Talking about the soldier ride and at the same time about her student with a prosthetic leg, Moreau said, “Kids here can see that anyone with a disability can do something amazing.”
“I’m going to be in the Olympics,” Diego declared during his personal ride around the school. “I can do a flip and I can break dance.”
Meadows principal Sara Watson said she hopes her students draw as much inspiration from the annual ride as the soldiers receive support.
“As much as we are out there to support them I hope these kids are inspired,” Watson said. “Later in life they can reflect and know they can’t give up whatever the barriers they face.”
“My kids are so proud of them,” Moreau said of her kindergarten students. “They are soldiers’ children and they take so much pride and ownership in our soldiers.”