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4-day Wounded Warrior Project sporting event brings veterans to Charlotte for therapy

Charlotte is hosting an unusual sporting event this weekend; 31 wounded warriors from around the country will bike, raft and sail as part of an initiative to speed up their recovery.

It’s called the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride and includes veterans who are paralyzed or who have lost limbs, as well as those dealing with the emotional scars from watching friends die.

All will be able to participate thanks to special adaptive sporting equipment that can be fitted for people who can’t use their arms or legs. Fittings for special bikes were held on Thursday.

Charles Wesson, 35, of Charlotte is among the former soldiers who signed up. He was paralyzed from the waist down a year ago. He said he was in the Army 14 years and was deployed five times overseas.

“You got to choose whether you are going to sit around and think about what you don’t have anymore, or you can keep on doing what you can,” Wesson said. “I’m excited to be with my own kind, other soldiers, laughing and hanging out. It’s like I’m 16 again.”

He is among a half dozen wounded veterans from the Charlotte area who are participating, organizers said. In all, one-third of the participants this weekend are from the Carolinas.

Sixteen Soldier Rides are held annually around the country, and 850 veterans have participated so far, said Amanda Becker, a specialist with the events. An additional ride is held each year in Germany, she said.

The events’ origin can be traced to 2004, when a civilian named Chris Carney cycled 5,000 miles coast to coast to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. He did the trek again in 2005, but he invited several combat-wounded veterans to ride along.

It has since become a wellness program devoted entirely to wounded veterans who need a confidence boost and are working to achieve greater independence. A variety of sports are typically included during the four-day events, to give the veterans a chance to find one that suits their lifestyle best, Becker said.

The veterans will cycle more than 40 miles during two days in Charlotte, using public streets near Charlotte Douglas International Airport and Reedy Creek Park. They’ll also do some sailing on Lake Norman and visit Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center, Becker said.

Army and National Guard veteran Chris Norris, 42, of Lake View, S.C., said he signed up in part to help others like himself, who are coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Norris calls it “survivor’s guilt” for losing two friends he’d known for 10 years during a deployment.

“I detached from everything in my life and locked myself in the house for two years,” Norris said.

“The Wounded Warrior Project convinced me to get out, and I’ll never forget meeting all these people who were paralyzed, or who lost legs and arms. Yet they all had the one thing that I didn’t have: a smile.

“I wanted what they had: a reason to smile.”

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