University City

Bike ride benefits wounded veterans

Wounded war veterans will take to the streets of Charlotte on May 21, many on adaptive vehicles, and local citizens can ride alongside.

The bike ride will begin at 9 a.m. at the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. off of Morrison Boulevard in SouthPark.

The mission of the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit started in 2003, is to honor and empower wounded soldiers.

"If I hadn't been accepted to WWP, I would probably be sitting on my couch right now doing nothing," said Stephen Siwulec from Nesconset, N.Y.

Siwulec, 26, was in a military vehicle in Afghanistan in 2006 when a bomb exploded in the road. He first learned about WWP while in a hospital in Germany.

After a year of physical therapy, Siwulec returned to his unit and served another tour in Iraq. In 2008, Siwulec had a seizure and the doctors diagnosed him with a traumatic brain injury.

"They said I couldn't be in the Army anymore," Siwulec said.

When he came home, he felt lost. In high school he ran track, now he had memory loss, an injured pelvis, hip pain and a heart condition.

"Wounded Warrior Project got me connected to a lot of other WWP guys and got me into sports," said Siwulec. "Charlotte will be my third Solider Ride."

Soldier Ride is a WWP program that provides physical and mental rehabilitation, and raises money.

Veterans who sign up are fitted for adaptive bikes when necessary, making it possible even for amputees to ride the eight, 28 or 46 mile ride.

Hugh Conlon, 49, recently moved with his wife and two kids to Charlotte's Highland Creek area from Augusta, Ga. When he retired from military duty in 2007, he got involved with the WWP project Warriors to Work. That program assists warriors with the transition back into the workforce.

"I met a retired Navy chief through the project and we spoke a common language," Conlon said. "He had some human resource background and proceeded to educate me on how to speak 'civilian.'"

It was through this man, Ferdinand Alsina, that Conlon found out about a job as a part-time spokesperson with WWP. He started training in April and will soon begin giving guest lectures.

It was also Alsina who made Conlon want to participate in a Solider Ride.

"He (Alsina) did the Jacksonville solider ride a few months ago and he complained about his sore knees and back, but the overall impression I got was that not only did he enjoy it, but he'll never miss another one," Conlon said.

Conlon said the great thing about WWP is the common bond felt by all the members. "It's a group of people who understand me," he said.

A medic in the Army for 20 years, Conlon has seen his share of horror and says his disabilities come from the stuff you can't see on the outside. Like Siwulec, he feels like WWP gave him that shove off the couch and into something he didn't think he could do.