Trump to honor wounded veterans at White House

It may look like just a bike ride, but as 29 wounded warriors hit the Washington-area roads this week, it is a testament to service, sacrifice and perseverance.

Wounded Warrior Project’s DC Soldier Ride is underway, a three-day journey aimed at overcoming adversity — both physical and mental — and fostering bonds in the veteran community.

The warriors will be honored Thursday at the White House, an annual celebration dating back to the Bush administration in 2008 and President Donald Trump’s third such event since taking office. It will be Trump’s first event of the day, likely concurring with the expected release of a redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

But for the 29 riders, who come from across the country and represent all branches of the U.S. military with a combined 73 deployments and 284 years of service, Thursday will be a rare opportunity to be honored by the President for their service.

Ahead of the ride in an Arlington, Virginia, hotel parking lot Tuesday, bike techs met with riders, fitting each veteran to his or her own bike. The Soldier Ride isn’t a race — riders average eight to 10 miles per hour, and, as the bike techs repeatedly said, the team starts together and finishes together.

Wounded Warrior Project, which hosted over 1200 participants in Soldier Rides across the country last year, has a commitment to accommodate any warrior’s needs or abilities, and that was evidenced by the variety of mountain, hybrid and recumbent bikes available. A vision-impaired rider is able to participate with the help of a tandem recumbent bike.

Jorge Avalos, who served in the U.S. Army for 23 years, is a cheerleader of sorts for the other riders this week. He told CNN he will spend the ride working to get his fellow warriors motivated, pushing them up hills — in some cases, literally.

“A lot of times when veterans get injured, life comes to a halt,” he said. But it’s his hope that this group views it as a “bump in the road.”

Avalos has overcome a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and in 2011, a skydiving accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was told he would never walk again, but the avid cycler was back on a bike in 2012, participating in his first Soldier Ride in 2014.

“With my injuries, life has changed, but life’s not over,” Avalos, who builds custom bikes in the San Antonio area, said ahead of his bike fitting.

Avalos and the other riders began their ride Wednesday with 18 miles in Annapolis, Maryland, where they kicked off the ride surrounded by supporters at a fire station. On Friday, the group will log 14 miles in Northern Virginia.

For fellow rider Jeremiah Pauley, the week is expected to be both emotional and fulfilling. In 2011, Pauley was struggling with crippling anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder after 11 years in the Army.

Pauley had been wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq while serving in the First Armored Division in 2006, and while the physical effects had largely healed, he was bouncing between jobs and dealing with divorce and suicidal thoughts.

“I felt alone and isolated,” Pauley said of the time. “In my darkest hours, Wounded Warrior Project asked if I wanted to go on a soldier ride.”

It was his first time on a bike since childhood.

“It was exhilarating. I felt empowered,” he said of his first ride.

The experience wasn’t so much about the cycling, he said, but the shared experience of service and sacrifice with his fellow riders.

“It turned out to be an extended family I didn’t know I had, and it was a challenge to step outside of my comfort zone,” Pauley, who now works full time with Wounded Warrior Project, said.

Pauley said for his fellow riders, Thursday’s visit to the White House is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“How many people in the country get to meet a sitting president? And to be honored is very humbling for veterans who were all injured or wounded in the line of duty,” he said.