Over 150 vets, first responders bicycle through FWB

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By Jim Thompson | 315-4445 | @Jimtnwfdn || jthompson@nwfdailynews.com

OKALOOSA ISLAND — More than 150 veterans and first responders, along with supporters, rode their bicycles through Fort Walton Beach on Wednesday in the United Healthcare Gulf Coast Challenge.

The ride began Monday in Tallahassee and will cover 450 miles before it ends Saturday in New Orleans. Along the way, participating veterans and first responders will exercise their muscles and also find opportunities to exorcise any unseen wounds to their spirits and psyches.

“I ride to run away from the memories,” said Leo Santamaria, a Vietnam veteran participating in his 11th Challenge ride. Santamaria was among the riders who started out Wednesday morning from the Ramada Plaza Beach Resort on Okaloosa Island for the day’s ride to Pensacola.

Santamaria said his service in Veitnam left him with a number of personal problems.

“I don’t like to remember those,” he said.

One of the things he’ll remember about this year’s ride is pushing through Tuesday’s heavy rain with his fellow riders.

Asked to describe how it felt to meet that challenge, Santamaria had a one-word answer.

“Fun,” he said. 

The rides are part of the work done by Project Hero, a national nonprofit organization that works to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder, supports community-based rehabilitation and recovery programs and stages Ride 2 Recovery events like the United Healthcare Gulf Coast Challenge.

Kevin Dubois, a Marine veteran who lost both legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device during his second deployment in Afghanistan in 2011, is participating in his third Challenge ride this week.

Dubois is riding a three-wheeled hand-powered cycle, an exercise option he discovered during his recovery.

“I found hand-cycling, and I’ve never stopped since,” he said. Dubois said he enjoys the camaraderie of the Challenge rides. It’s something he doesn’t have at home in Rhode Island, where he rides alone, he said.

“It’s really different from back home,” Dubois said as the dozens of Challenge riders milled about Wednesday morning waiting for the day’s ride to start.

Kenneth Inscoe, participating in his seventh Challenge ride, had been an off-and-on bicyclist for years, but got serious about it after he returned from a 2002 deployment to Afghanistan as an Army medic. Facing a host of medical and psychological challenges, and with medicines and traditional therapy “not going anywhere,” Inscoe said regular bicycling has helped him in a number of ways, including reducing his need for medications.

He participated in his first Challenge ride two years ago, and continues to be impressed by the willingness of riders to help one another along the way, with a little push or whatever else a struggling rider might need.

“When I needed help … somebody was there — no judgment, no criticism,” Inscoe said.

This year, he was able to return the favor for another rider, saying, “Hey, let me give you a little push.”

Coast Guard veteran Don Ennis, who is dealing with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, is on his third Challenge ride this week. Like Inscoe, he’s seen bicycling reduce his need for medication.


Ennis said he appreciates the opportunity to be with veterans because they understand things about his life that his civilian friends can’t always grasp.

“This is family, to be honest,” he said.

Joe Coddington, operations director for Project Hero, said rides like the Gulf Coast Challenge are designed, in part, to promote camaraderie among the small percentage of Americans who have served in the military or work as first responders. As riders tire from physical exertion, he said, their emotional walls break down and they can share thoughts and feelings with one another.

The rides are also designed to restore the sense of mission that injured military personnel lose when they’re separated from their units for medical treatment.

“They’re training as hard for this as they ever did” for their military missions, Coddington said.

Also on hand for this week’s Challenge ride is Chris Parrillo, regional vice president for United Healthcare.

“It’s about living our mission,” he said, adding that his company is “very grateful and thankful for the sacrifices” made by the participating veterans and first responders.

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