By Bob Uphues
About 70 veterans, many of whom had suffered wounds in combat during their years in the service, spent the morning of June 25 enjoying each other's company and the cheers of well-wishers as they cycled through the western suburbs during the first leg of the Wounded Warriors Project's Soldier Ride.
Part of a four-day event in the Chicago area, the veterans — outfitted in special red, white and blue cycling shirts and riding a variety of bicycles and recumbent bikes — pedaled through North Riverside and Brookfield during a 13-mile ride that ended at Brookfield Zoo.
After pedaling along Golf Road beneath a large American flag hoisted aloft by fire department ladder trucks from Riverside and Brookfield, veterans high-fived and flashed thumbs-up to zoo visitors and staff who lined the mall to greet them inside the zoo's South Gate.
Chicago Zoological Society President and CEO Stuart Strahl greeted the veterans, who presented him with a plaque. After a lunch at the Pavilions, the veterans got back on their chartered bus and headed back to their Rosemont hotel to rest up for the remainder of their journey through Chicago and its suburbs.
The Wounded Warrior Project is a nonprofit charity founded in 2003 to specifically address the needs of those wounded and/or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving overseas in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The organization hosts events, such as the Soldier Ride, as a way for wounded veterans to bond with others who face similar challenges and as a way to overcome their difficulties readjusting to life after serving in the armed forces.
Jimmie Blockett was one of the roughly six dozen veterans who cycled through River Forest, Oak Park, Forest Park, North Riverside and Brookfield on June 25 — the first of three such Chicago-area rides for the group last week.
Blockett, a master sergeant still on active duty in the U.S. Army, has been in the service for 24 years and served in Iraq. He took up cycling to support his wife, Sharika, also a U.S. Army veteran no longer on active duty. She served for more than nine years and was deployed in Iraq. She suffers from PTSD.
"My wife is part of the Wounded Warriors," said Blockett, a Tampa, Florida, resident. "We wanted to do something we could do together. We want to get out and meet new people and tell our stories and keep us going."
June 25 was just the first leg of the Chicago Soldier Ride, which is also taking place in more than a dozen cities around the country. On July 26, the veterans cycled 17 miles around Rosemont and took part in a softball game against local police officers and firefighters.
And on June 27, the group made their longest trek — 25 miles from Highland Park to St. Mary's Church in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood.