A wave of cheers, gratitude and inspiration rolled into Killeen and Fort Hood as more than 100 wounded veterans and supporters rode into town last week as part of a more than 500-mile bike ride that started in San Antonio on April 3 and ended in Houston on Saturday.
The 2017 UnitedHealthcare Ride to Recovery Texas Challenge, benefiting the injured veteran riders of Project Hero, is a national nonprofit organization that helps veterans and first responders affected by injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury achieve rehabilitation, recovery and resilience.
“(This challenge) is an important way for our veterans to achieve hope, recovery and resilience, which is the mission of Project Hero,” said Peter Bylsma, director of marketing communications for Project Hero. “It’s helping our veterans reintegrate (with others) and live healthy lives.”
The group arrived in Killeen on April 5 and made a stop at “The Great Place” before continuing their ride to Waco.
Soldiers and their unit flags lined T.J. Mills Boulevard early Thursday morning and greeted the riders with cheers and high-fives while lively tunes were played by the 1st Cavalry Division Band.
Fort Hood leadership welcomed them and expressed gratitude towards fellow veterans and first responders.
“I really love this event,” said Col. Todd Fox, Fort Hood garrison commander. “I think this is a great opportunity for a lot of our young soldiers to see how our community sticks together even after you take off the uniform.”
Although all can admit to having tough seasons in life, the help of a trusted friend can really improve the ability to overcome, said Fox.
“(Project Hero) is an example of a program like that and it’s done with such a high level of energy, you really feed off of it,” he said.
Riding through historic sites, civic centers and local attractions, the riders made their way with hand cycles, recumbent cycles and custom tandems. Local veterans were also invited to ride on a single-day basis.
For many of the riders, arriving on Fort Hood was like coming home.
“There is a group of at least five of us who were stationed here and this is our home,” said Felix Alicea.
The Puerto Rico native served in the U.S. Army from 1979-2005 and his career began and retired at Fort Hood.
On his seventh Ride to Recovery challenge, Alicea said he doesn’t claim any kind of PTSD, but — because of his disability — cycling was his only option when it came to staying in shape.
“(The challenge) allows me to breathe, talk to them (fellow riders), get stuff off of my chest and let them get stuff off of theirs and actually feel like we have self-worth. We are living life again, looking for a solution to what we (go through) — not looking for a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” said Alicea.
For Navy-vet Leila Raffice-Shirazi, riding through Texas has been very unique.
“I love Texas. Texas has such military support,” she said. “We do about five challenges a year and Texas is just one that stands out because we have schools that are supportive, the community comes together and it’s been really welcoming.”