Want to make a difference for our returning troops while biking across the nation? The Wounded Warrior Project—the largest nonprofit organization dedicated to providing aid and support for veterans, to “foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history”—is rapidly approaching its 10th year of operations. In celebration of this milestone, the documentary Welcome to Soldier Ride (the brainchild of Matt Hindra and Nick Kraus) will premiere on July 18 in Amagansett Square.
This exhaustive documentary tells the incredible story of the first “Riders”—wounded veterans Heath Calhoun and Ryan Kelly, both amputees, along with cyclist Chris Carney—who biked over 8,000 miles, to span the width of the country and back, in less than four months. Without intending to, these three men garnered huge displays of public support, and eventually the Soldier Ride program became a reality. Kraus called it “the Forrest Gump effect”—but whatever it was, it pushed the Wounded Warrior Project into the public eye.
Both Calhoun and Kelly are Purple Heart recipients who were nearly killed in Iraq—these days, the two spend their time as an Olympic skier and a medical helicopter pilot, respectively. Before beginning his first ride, Carney had been working as a bartender in Amagansett, but felt he wasn’t doing enough to help returning troops. After years of consecutive Soldier Rides, Carney now owns Railroad Avenue Fitness in East Hampton. The cycling team’s success has transformed Soldier Ride from a three-man trip into a full-fledged program, which sends riders across the country to a different city every month and sponsors yearly trips overseas to France, Germany, Israel and the UK.
Welcome to Soldier Ride itself was shot almost entirely with a high-def hand-held camera as the participants cycled along the road, and documents the hardships of the journey, as well as one-on-one interviews describing the experiences of the veterans and their bumpy roads to recovery. The movie spans 10 years and was originally conceived as “one cross-country trip tagging along with Chris, which had the potential to be a great little short film, with a solid beginning, middle and end,” says Kraus, but “the trip has never ended. I just kept filming and filming.” Hindra and Kraus were able to whittle the movie down from 500 hours to a taut 90 minutes. The film’s mission, according to Kraus, is to “elicit continued support for our wounded warriors while honoring their sacrifices and to encourage and inspire the newly wounded to never give up.” It is not only an attempt to record that first trip across America, but also a chronicle of the first 10 years of the project.
The release of the documentary roughly coincides with not only the 10th anniversary of the Wounded Warrior Project, but also with 2014’s “Soldier Ride: The Hamptons,” a local version of the event. This year’s ride, set for Saturday, July 19, is a memorial to the late USMC Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter of Sag Harbor, and will span 30 miles, from Amagansett to Sag Harbor and back. “The Hamptons ride grew into a community ride on its own,” Kraus says. “It started with Chris’s friends seeing him off as he left on the ride in 2004—then in ’05, when it started in California, people joined them as they came into East Hampton. In 2007, it became more of an organized ride, and now we’ve got close to 1,000 people riding every year.”
Kraus adds, “This grew from an idea in a bar to an international effort to treat our returning veterans better, and the things earlier participants have gone on to do have motivated us to turn this into a documentary. With the release taking place in Amagansett, 10 years later to the day, it seems like we’ve come full circle.”