‘Healing heroes’ bicycle into Princeton during 9-11 Challenge

Yesterday morning, a cohort of 90 veterans could be seen riding down Alexander Road into Princeton. The men and women rode two-by-two – baring not only the physical challenge of a 40-mile ride, one of the easier of the three-day endeavor, but breaking down the barrier which can so easily unsettle the transition back into civilian life.

The Ride 2 Recovery is a program focused on healing veterans and first responders with physical and mental injuries through a series of initiatives, including the multi-day “Challenge” where up to 200 veterans bicycle 100 miles a day. The Princeton-based New Jersey Hospital Association collaborates with the program and a multitude of other hospitals to ensure veterans throughout the country have the opportunity to participate and heal.

“Nowadays, there’s no time to process your experience in combat. You wake up in the morning in Afghanistan and later that day you’re back in Los Angeles, or wherever. In World War II, [soldiers] took boats home. It gave them time to think,” said Joe Coddington, a marine veteran, former pro-cyclist and current event director for Ride to Recovery. “Cycling in two-by-two rows is peer-to-peer counseling. After five hours, you run out of small talk. When you’re tired, your emotional walls come down. It’s great for post-traumatic stress disorder. Cycling is all processing.”

Coddington, who has been doing the ride for three years, described how riders’ progress is tangible as they race against the pavement. He has seen individuals begin the challenge without uttering a word  – solemn and struggling. By the end, they seem to transform – giving high-fives to the other cyclists, smiling and more open to positive relationships.

This particular challenge, the “9-11 Challenge,” is, according to Coddington, one of the most difficult in the program’s nine years running. Participants began their journey on Sept. 11 in Arlington, Va., traveled through Maryland and Pennsylvania before arriving in Princeton for lunch and will end in Newark tomorrow after visiting the 9-11 Memorial.

“It’s a very cathartic ride for our healing heroes,” Coddington said, “considering many of them are here because of the events ensuing the attacks.”

One rider, former Arlington Fire Department Chief Robert Gray, was directly affected by the attacks 15 years ago as a first responder at the Pentagon. After retiring 10 years later, Gray fell off a ladder and suffered serious brain injuries.

“I went into a three-week coma. When I woke up, I couldn’t speak. I could hardly move. This right here, the Ride 2 Recovery, has been the most significant thing to get my feet on the ground,” Gray said. “My first time, I couldn’t ride but made a speech. The second, I rode for one day. Today, I am doing the whole thing. This is the best way to do 9-11 – with so many inspiring people who risk taking their own lives for people they have never even met. It helps me deal with that surreal, terrifying day.”

“There are people who run away from things and those who run toward them. This challenge is for those who run toward it,” said Robert Rios, who volunteers to protect the bicyclists’ safety by driving his motorcycle alongside them.

He and Gray hugged tightly.

The Ride 2 Recovery program and the NJHA strive to employ veterans to help other veterans. Area resident Jaye Silver is a NJHA veteran health-care navigator who acts as a “translator” for veterans when they return to civilian life. Having experience in military combat as well as having earned a doctorate in neurocognitive science, enables Silver to connect to the program participants.

“So often, these soldiers come back and just hear, ‘Hey listen, thank you for your service.’ We say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and put our arm around them. ‘Sit down, have a cheesesteak and a milkshake. How is that? Do you need ketchup?’ Wouldn’t that feel better?,” Silver said. “This ride is a big help for them – the wind in their faces. It’s freeing.”

To get involved with Ride 2 Recovery in the Princeton area, or to volunteer to fundraise for yourself and a veteran to join a Challenge, visit Ride2Recovery.com.

About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida