- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

The Wounded Warrior Project Soldiers Ride in Annapolis began earlier this month without great fanfare in the grassy meadow of Jonas Park. About 75 riders of all ages and races and both genders were lining up to start the ride. The red, white and blue was everywhere, on our jerseys, on our bikes and on the little flags waving in the wind.

The organizers asked the Navy Cycling Team to lead the pack, with the Wounded Warrior Team made up of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan right behind and supporters following. We rode over the bridge leading into the U.S. Naval Academy while police stood ready to redirect traffic.

As we entered the academy, we could see people lined up along the route in the distance.

First, we heard clapping, then cheering - midshipmen, instructors, staff, men and women in impeccable white uniforms clapping and cheering riders who may have lost a limb but have retained their commitment, pride and love for their country.



Seeing these veterans pedal through the academy grounds with honor and dignity using what was left of their arms and legs reminded me of the true spirit of America; the indomitable spirit of sacrifice to protect freedom and fight injustice everywhere in the world.

The clapping and cheering affected me deeply. Raising my head to gaze at the faces of these young men and women, I could not help but cry. All of a sudden, I felt as if America as a whole had awakened and realized how many brave men and women have sacrificed so much, just so we all could enjoy such liberty and great freedom.

Everything felt like it was happening in slow motion - the pedaling, the clapping, the smiling faces going by. Looking at the rough pavement through sunglasses full of tears, trying to cope with such deep emotion, I was not sure whether I was experiencing reality or a dream.

As the clapping continued, the sound seemed to change into waves of sweet music. I felt like God was saying, “Thank you, brave soldier; job well done.”

I had to ask myself, “Why am I here? I dont deserve this. This cheering is for those in front of us; its for those who saw death right in front of their eyes, saw evil strike their friends, saw blood spilling out of their bodies. They are the ones who collapsed to the ground, wounded, while hell was raging all around them. They are the ones who survived, who lived to be here, who rose again with pride and honor.”

As the cyclists rode from the Naval Academy, the only sounds were the clacking of the bikes, the rolling of the tires. No one spoke. With eyes still moist, I felt humbled to be in the presence of those around me, awed by their quiet sacrifice, and enormously grateful to have witnessed the esteem of their colleagues.

No one forced them to go to war. They just felt called to protect what America stands for. With dignity, compassion and love, these heroes and heroines risked life and limb to protect me, my family and our country. This is a debt I will never forget.

c PierAngelo Beltrami, a paralympian, lives in Shepherds- town, W.Va.

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