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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 18, 2005

Project aids wounded warriors

By Tom Stuckey
Associated Press

Heath Calhoun, 24, who lost his legs when a rocket-propelled grenade landed in the rear of the truck in which he was riding in Iraq, prepares to get on his bike in Annapolis, Md., as part of the Soldier Ride National Tour, which began May 21 in Marina Del Ray, Calif., and ends tomorrow in Montauk, N.Y.

Matthew S. Gunby | Associated Press


ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Missing two legs he lost in the Iraq war, Heath Calhoun is nearing the end of a 4,200-mile cross-country journey by hand-propelled bicycle. His goal: to remind Americans the war is not over and that wounded soldiers are returning home with their lives changed forever.

"More than anything, we just want people to know that their troops are coming back and they need your support, whether you support the war or not," Calhoun said as he and a band of fellow Iraq veterans arrived in Annapolis last Monday.

The former soldiers are raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project, a private organization that provides services to help those who were seriously wounded in the war.

"Money is desperately needed," Calhoun said, adding that the group helped him "when just getting out of bed seemed impossible."

Calhoun, 24, is one of three people — along with Ryan Kelly and Chris Carney — who have made the entire Soldier Ride National Tour, which began May 21 in Marina Del Ray, Calif., and is scheduled to end tomorrow in Montauk, N.Y. Other veterans have joined for one or more stages along the way.

Carney, who helped to organize the trip, is not a military veteran, but Kelly lost a leg after a roadside bomb exploded south of Baghdad three years ago. He said the Wounded Warrior Project was also there to help him.

The organization provides backpacks containing items like underwear, telephone cards and CD players for soldiers who may arrive at hospitals in the United States with nothing but the clothes they're wearing, said John Melia, a former Marine who was injured in a helicopter crash in Somalia and helped found the group in 2003.

The Wounded Warrior Project also provides other services, such as counseling and opportunities for wounded soldiers to engage in athletics. The group has raised about $4.5 million, including $3 million through the Internet.

More than 1,700 American troops have died in Iraq, but many more have returned wounded — some seriously. Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., has treated more than 4,200 patients from the Iraq war, 1,150 of them with combat injuries, and more than 300 wounded troops from Afghanistan.

Kelly, 24, said he knows wounded veterans are in the minds of many Americans, but that isn't enough.

"Thoughts and prayers are important, but they don't teach a kid how to ski after losing a leg," he said. "The project needs funds. I decided it was important enough that I could give up two months of my life. They were just there to fill in all the gaps."

Among those making the trip from Washington, D.C., to Annapolis on July 11 was Stephen Rice, 24, who lost a leg after a roadside bomb exploded near him in Iraq in 2003. He said the Wounded Warrior Project also helped him adjust to the loss of his leg.

"I decided the amputation was sort of a new beginning. It's a way to get back to the person I used to be," he said.

After visiting Annapolis, where Kelly and Carney met Gov. Robert Ehrlich, the group concluded the 11th leg of their journey in Baltimore in the afternoon with a visit to a VA hospital.

Baltimore native Robert White, 73, who served with the military in Korea, waved a small U.S. flag as the soldiers stopped at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

"They just don't give up, and they're not letting anything discourage them," he said. "No matter what, veterans always find a way to come out on top."

Learn more: www.woundedwarriorproject.org