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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Soldier bike ride helps veterans dig deep

Soldier Ride The Hamptons is dedicated to the

Soldier Ride The Hamptons is dedicated to the memory of LCpl Jordan C. Haerter of Sag Harbor. He was killed in action at the age of 19. in 2008 in Iraq. Haerter saved the lives of over 30 Marines and Iraqi policemen. The Veteran's Memorial Bridge was dedicated to Haerter. A wounder warrior rides over the bridge. (July 24, 2010) Photo Credit: Photo by Randee Daddona

It's 9:59 a.m. and the third annual Babylon Soldier Ride is ready to begin.

Hundreds around me begin to climb aboard their bikes. Space is tight outside Babylon Town Hall. So tight that with one foot on the ground and the other on a pedal for so long, the pedal foot feels like lead when we turn into the street and start riding.

Pretty soon, we're rolling and we're snaking. Yes, that's the word, snaking. We're a hundreds-strong undulating mass of humanity pedaling with pride behind two dozen wounded American and Israeli war veterans.

Men and women we'd just cheered wildly as they, one by one, rode their bicycles - many of them modified - to the front of the line.

This is my first soldier ride. It's my first ride in a monster crowd. I usually pedal alone or with a small group of friends - 10, 20, 25 miles - in the cool hours of the early morning.

This is nothing like that. For one, as the 23 miles pass by, we get to stretch out on almost-empty roads. Big roads, like Montauk Highway and the Robert Moses Causeway.

For another we get to pass under giant American flags. We get to see firefighters, construction workers, waitresses, children, boaters lining the streets.

Clapping. Cheering. Waving. Handing out bottles of water and sports drinks. Holding signs that say, "Thank you."

The crowds are almost everywhere, from Lindenhurst to Amityville to West Islip. And, honestly, at the beginning of the ride, I don't know what to feel about them.

Why are these people waving, smiling and encouraging me?

I've done nothing compared to the wounded soldiers and the legions of veterans and servicemen and women riding along beside me in the crowd. I can't shake the notion of being unworthy.

I wasn't the only one grappling with such feelings, I would discover later.

"I felt a little weird about it," said Elaine Gitto of Selden, who was also making her first ride. "Then, a lady called out, 'Thank you for supporting the soldiers,' and I thought, that's why I wanted to do the ride in the first place."

At some point during the first several miles, I remembered that Friday was my brother's birthday. He's in the Coast Guard and he served in Iraq.

I decided on the spot to dedicate my ride to him and every other serviceman and woman who volunteered to fight for their country. That would be the best present ever. (Happy Birthday, Bro!)

From that point on, the ride was joyous, exhilarating and delightful.

Toward the end of the ride, half of my left hand went numb. And I worried whether it would work when it came time to brake to a stop.

But then I thought about the wounded warriors who, by then, were pedaling behind most of the crowd.

My hand was numb. But I had a hand. No, make that two hands. And two legs. Which began to push me faster and faster up the final incline before a turn to the beach.

And then I realized why soldier rides are so important - and work so well - for wounded soldiers. Just like the ride's founders say they do.

For the rides, the wounded veterans have to dig deep.

Challenge themselves.

Stay strong.

And keep going, no matter what, to the finish.

Which is why, at the end of the ride, the rest of us lined a portion of a parking lot. And we stood and we clapped and we cheered as the wounded soldiers passed by.

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