WAYNESBORO, Pa. — Veterans and active duty members of the military squeezed rainwater from their gloves and socks Thursday when they paused in Waynesboro on the Ride 2 Recovery.
About 350 bicyclists were participating in the 88-mile leg of the journey that took them from Gettysburg, Pa., to Bedford, Pa. In the "9/11 American Challenge," riders are traveling from the World Trade Center to Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon.
The eight-day ride is Daniel Smith's first with the organization.
"Riding a bike pulled me out of a really bad place in my life, when I had withdrawn from everybody and everyone. I got on a bike and started relating to other warriors going through the same thing," said Smith, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2009.
When he's riding, Smith, who served in Iraq, said he thinks about the friends he lost in combat and those who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"This is a very emotional ride," he said.
Ride 2 Recovery benefits mental and physical rehabilitation programs for wounded veterans. Program spokeswoman Debora Spano said the goal is to help injured veterans do something physical, rather than sit in a hospital room.
She said the rides require a lot of planning, including the mechanics, spare tires, medical kits and snacks carried in support vehicles.
Spano started bicycling herself after she started working with Ride 2 Recovery, which she said helps to fight misconceptions about injured veterans returning home.
"It's been the best thing I've ever done in my life," said Spano, who has been involved with 10 rides.
Dan O'Connor, a Vietnam War veteran, said he rides in camaraderie with the younger participants.
"I want to show these kids 'Don't quit, no matter what life hands you.' If this 64-year-old ... can do this, you can do this," O'Connor said.
One rider, Chuck Sketch, is a double amputee and blind, Spano said. He rides a hand cycle led by a another biker, she said.
Spano recalls the first time Sketch rode the "chuck wagon."
"He was screaming, 'I can feel the wind on my face!'" she said.
O'Connor, of Charleston, W.Va., underwent a below-the-knee amputation for injuries suffered while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. He started bicycling 18 months ago.
"I've seen these young men and women show up on the first day of the ride. They're very introverted and won't talk to anybody. ... They come out of their shells, and it's just great," O'Connor said.
Lt. Chris Troxell previously participated in the California Challenge and Memorial Challenge.
"The first ride was a completely different experience than what I imagined," said Troxell, who had more experience as a mountain biker.
He said he's learned "the generosity of mankind" as he's passed through towns across the nation. The American Legion posts in Waynesboro and McConnellsburg, Pa., provided the group with snacks and lunch, respectively, on Thursday.
The parents of Todd Beamer, who was killed when hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, were expected to speak to riders Thursday evening.
"What I'm taking away from this is the friendships you make on the bicycle rides. Once you're next to someone who goes through the same thing you do, it's going to be better with them," said Smith, who is from Texas.
Pedaling on the bike helps with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and anger issues, according to Army Staff Sgt. Spencer Anderson II, of Wisconsin.
"It's relaxing, and it helps me unwind. The camaraderie is phenomenal here," said Anderson, who was injured by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2007.
For more information on the ride, see www.ride2recovery.com