SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A group of military veterans has been riding bikes this week in and around Washington D.C. Many of the bikes have been reconfigured so that men who lost limbs and suffered wounds in war could feel the power in their grace and the wind in their faces. They joined the annual four-day Soldier Ride, organized by the Wounded Warriors Project. Before the ride started, the veterans were fitted for their custom-made bikes at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. That's where we met Michael Owens, who was riding for the third time. Mr. Owens was a U.S. Marine on his second deployment in Iraq in 2005. He was manning a heavy gun on a tank, but the tank got hit, rolled over, and crushed him.
SERGEANT MICHAEL OWENS: You know, I lost my arm, shattered both legs, but I got two post-cruciate ligament replacements on my left knee, and then I have a metal rod from my right knee to my right hip, and obviously have my arm off - taken off - above the elbow.
SIMON: How do you ride a bike?
OWENS: Carefully, carefully.
SIMON: I deserved that. But that raises the question that follows: how do you ride a bike, why ride a bike? Why is that important to you?
OWENS: I think it's important, well, not only for me but I think it's really important for warriors and veterans like myself to be able to know that we can still do the same things we did before or new things that we never tried before. I mean, that is essential when it comes to recovery.
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SIMON: Michael Owens is a veteran at picking up his life. But there are also riders who are just getting started, like Sergeant Patrick Brown. A Wounded Warriors volunteer helped lower Patrick Brown onto a bike that had been fitted so that he could pedal with his hands.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, it's a specially made cushion for his chair that's completely molded to his body.
SIMON: Sergeant Brown from Chesapeake, Virginia served in Iraq and was on a bomb-clearing patrol in Afghanistan in 2010 when he was hit by an IED and lost most of both legs.
SERGEANT PATRICK BROWN: Lost this one just below the knee, and this one was blown off around the knee cap, then I lost the rest of leg and my hipbone to infections.
SIMON: Does learning how to ride a bike all over again this way mean something to everything else you've got ahead of you?
BROWN: Yeah, it's a chance to start over, just learning the same things you used to learn but in a different way. Still be able to do everything you could do before.
SIMON: You have family?
BROWN: I do, yes. My mom is actually here with me. My dad and brother and sister are back home.
SIMON: Patrick Brown is 23. He says he's had 54 surgeries. His mother, Susan Brown, joined him in Bethesda this week, and remembers when she and her husband got the call at 5 A.M. that their son was wounded.
SUSAN BROWN: That's usually around the same time Patrick would call. So, you know, when you answer the phone, I was expecting Patrick to go, hi mom, you know. And instead we got this is Marines Quantico. So it was tough, you know. Then you just settle on OK, he's injured, he's alive. Then they read off the list of injuries and you just have to focus on OK, but he's alive.
So it was five days of rough stuff before he could get back here. But then when he was here and you can lay eyes on him, you know, your like it's OK, it's going to be OK. We can deal with this all of this. We can get through this. And he's had nothing but a positive attitude. So that has helps immensely.
SIMON: What's riding a bike mean to your son?
BROWN: A sense of normalcy and a little bit of freedom, you know. The first time he rode the bike, he went around the track. He was like, you know, mom this is what I used to do. This is great. You know, this is telling me that everything I did isn't lost, I can come back and beat this.
SIMON: A soldier named Devan Shei and his brother, Eric, are waging the same battle. Eric was shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq in 2005. He's talking again but can't walk. Devan Shei was wounded in his legs, back, shoulder, and head in Afghanistan in 2010. Devan has had 15 surgeries and is making his second Wounded Warriors ride, pulling his brother behind him.
DEVAN SHEI: I do the pedaling and my brother's job is pretty much to tell me to row.
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SHEI: So he's my motivation to keep me going. When I'm almost ready to quit, he makes fun of me. And that's our own little thing, when he makes fun of me it kind of gets me in the mood to push myself a little bit further.
SIMON: You guys really are brothers?
SHEI: Yeah, we are.
SIMON: When you and your brother are on the bike, do you say things when you're just with each other, talk about things that - I don't know - that come up maybe they wouldn't among other people?
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SHEI: Sometimes, you know, I tell him if he wants to go to sleep he can go to sleep because, you know, it's relaxing for him to be out in the outdoors being able to move. He told me during the race, it feels like he's actually riding. And I said anything I can do to, you know, make it better let me know. He pretty much just makes fun of me the whole time. And, you know, afterwards that's when we start talking and he says he's proud of me. And I tell him I'm proud of him and nobody every thought that we could ever do it.
Before, it was sitting in my room. I wasn't doing anything at all; felt sorry for myself. And then, it's pretty much a kick in the butt from somebody else that said, hey, you know, you got both your legs. Look at the other guys, they don't have both theirs and they're riding a bike. Why can't you do it?
SIMON: After three Wounded Warrior Soldier Rides, Michael Owens thinks he knows the word for what riding together gives to people who gave so much.
OWENS: Camaraderie; riding with other veterans, riding with other Wounded Warriors so to speak. It's the same kind of fun you had in the military. And now we're not in the military. We can't be in the military but we get the same, have that same camaraderie. And going out with the, you know, big groups like this - 15 to 40 different warriors all riding together. You look back and you got guys missing legs, missing arms; it doesn't matter we're just all riding together. That camaraderie is awesome and I think that's what I just feel when I ride.
BROWN: Corporal Patrick Brown, U.S. Marine Corps.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Major Jonathan W. Craig, U.S. Army. Sergeant Michael Owens, U.S. Marine Corps.
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SIMON: The service members were honored by President Obama at the White House yesterday.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you.
OBAMA: Proud of you, guys.
SIMON: While there, the veterans took a spin around the South Lawn. Mr. Obama called it one of the most inspiring White House events.
The veterans wind up their Wounded Warrior Soldier Ride today, along the Chesapeake Bay. But they'll continue to ride on together.
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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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