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Building bridges of comradery over a not-so common course
Born in St. Louis and raised in Little Rock, Andrew Miller has seen a good deal of what the world has to offer, and most of the U.S.A., too.
That's what 10-plus years of military service and three deployments over seas, all in the war-zone of Afghanistan, will do for you.
And, according to Miller, assigned to mortuary affairs at Joint Base Fort Lewis-McChord, it doesn't get much better than Washington state, with its mountains, evergreens and proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Still, Miller wasn’t about to follow the lead of his comrades and plunge into the waters near Deception Pass for a kayak or paddle-board outing. He found a shady spot instead where he could leisurely watch his fellow Wounded Warrior compatriots enjoy the cool water off Whidbey Island, and that was just fine.
“Uh, well, me and the water don’t quite get along,” the 27-year-old father of three admits. “But it was fun sitting out in the shade watching other people jump in.”
Miller, who, like many military veterans, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, was among nearly 50 participants who took part in three days of programs and activities on Whidbey and San Juan islands, Aug. 7-9, as part of a “Soldier Ride” sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project. They were accompanied by about a half-dozen WWP caregivers.
The group barbecued and took part in water sports (or watched others do it) at Deception Pass, rode 17 miles in and around Oak Harbor, many outfitted with specialized bicycle equipment, and covered about the same amount of ground Saturday on San Juan Island, from the Mullis Street fire station, out Bailer Hill Road, along False Bay Drive to Cattle Point Road and Fourth of July Beach, and then back again.
Miller found himself pulling “double duty” on the road, helping push riders who couldn’t quite make it up and over a hill or two. A first-time Soldier Ride participant, he found out quickly what many a bicyclist has come to know about San Juan’s roads.
“There were a lot of hills,” he said.
Pitching in, helping out, and connecting with fellow veterans is what the Wounded Warrior Project is all about. Miller said veterans share a bond and set of experiences that is difficult for most civilians to understand.
“When you’re around other wounded warriors you all have a common bond, and it’s not branch specific,” he said. “I like to call it a ‘safe’ place.”
A non-profit funded by corporate sponsors and private donations, large and small, the Wound Warrior Project has 17 office across the country and is headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla. Its goal is to introduce veterans an active lifestyle and to foster fellowship among participants. It doesn’t take long for bonds to unite, said WWP spokesperson Leslie Coleman.
“Almost instantly they feel like they’re connecting with ‘their people,’ if you will,” Coleman said. “It’s like instant brotherhood and sisterhood sets in.”
After freshening up at the Friday Harbor Suites, the wounded warriors were treated to a Mexican buffet at San Juan Golf & Country Club, and many seized upon the invitation to play a couple holes of golf, or more.
Cal Wilcox, one of about eight women veterans on the Soldier Ride, proved more of a spectator on the golf course, but as equally enthusiastic behind the wheel of a golf cart as she is about the benefits of the Wounded Warrior Project.
“A lot of people don’t feel comfortable about going out to get help,” said Wilcox, a former military medic who did two tours in Iraq. “Here there are people who understand what they’re going through and what they’re talking about. I call it a ‘safe haven’.”