Each year, in spite of grievous injuries that might stop an average person from attempting such heroic feats of athleticism, hundreds of wounded war veterans and their military brethren gather for Soldier Rides around the country, and now the world. With some missing legs or arms—often more than one—these warriors don their prosthetics, mount bicycles or handcycles and ride long distances to promote healing and, in the Hamptons, raise awareness and funds for Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that helps wounded veterans from the post-9/11 wars. Incredibly, it all started in the Hamptons.
“It was an idea hatched at the Stephen Talkhouse,” explains Nick Kraus, a promoter and partner at the beloved Amagansett bar where he helped create the phenomenon that swept America. Back in 2003, while Kraus and then-bartender Chris Carney—the original Soldier Ride rider—chatted over beers, Carney said he wanted to ride across the country and raise money to support veterans coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It sounded like a crazy idea at the time,” Kraus says, but he and Carney set up a card table and began accepting donations to launch Carney’s ambitious ride. They figured he’d do it if they could put together enough capital to make the ride possible. “We got $10,000 in pledges that night,” Kraus recalls. “I said, ‘Chris, you have to ride.’”
What followed is the stuff of legend. With Kraus driving ahead to secure media coverage and another Talkhouse employee, Tek Vakallaloma, following in a support RV, Carney made the 4,200-mile journey from Montauk to San Diego, garnering all sorts of press and raising more than $1 million for Wounded Warrior Project. Word also began spreading among veterans, and two wounded soldiers, SSG Heath Calhoun and SSG Ryan Kelly—both of whom have missing limbs—joined Carney’s ride for a weekend in Colorado, and again during his final leg in San Diego. Both expressed interest in doing the entire trek the following year, so Carney committed and they began planning almost immediately.
The second Soldier Ride, in 2005, changed everything. With Calhoun, a double-amputee, riding a handcycle and Kelly, a single-amputee, on a bike, the trio started something really special. This time, wounded soldiers joined them throughout the trip. “By the time we finished, we had almost 50 different soldiers who joined us,” Carney says. “That’s when it became more about rehabilitation than fundraising,” he adds, noting that an occupational therapist at Walter Reid Army Medical Center recognized the benefits of what they were doing and began sending patients to meet them along the route.
“It was almost a Forrest Gump kind of movement,” Kraus says of that year’s ride, referencing the fictional 1994 Robert Zemeckis film where Tom Hanks’ titular character inadvertently starts America’s jogging craze by running across the country, picking up followers along the way. Their effort was so powerful, President George W. Bush even invited the Soldier Ride team to the White House during their trip, and they’ve been back every year since, meeting both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Based on the events of 2005 and the larger Soldier Ride story, Kraus and Wainscott videographer Matt Hindra put together a 2014 documentary film, Welcome to Soldier Ride, which has only helped Soldier Ride’s profile and impact grow in the years since its release. Watch the trailer below.
“We couldn’t be prouder it started here,” Kraus says, noting that Soldier Ride has become much more than a fundraising vehicle. Today, rides around the United States encourage wounded veterans to exceed expectations and accomplish powerful feats of determination and endurance by overcoming their injuries and finding success. “You see a huge change in them,” Kraus says of the participants who join the veterans-only rides in places like Key West and Jacksonville, Florida, Washington D.C., Colorado Springs and nearly 40 other locations.
“It’s as much mental as it is physical,” Carney adds, explaining the rides’ rehabilitative effects. “As the days go by, they open up through the challenges on the road.” Today, Carney looks forward to the annual Soldier Ride Hamptons, where he gets to reconnect with veteran friends, including participating soldiers from England and Israel—countries which host reciprocal rides.
Going back to where it began on Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20, Soldier Ride Babylon and Soldier Ride Hamptons are the only “community rides” open to the non-military public, Kraus explains, though wounded veterans still play a major role. “It’s very moving for the soldiers to get support from the people riding alongside them,” he points out, noting that the local rides raise money for Wounded Warrior Project while also benefiting veterans directly through their efforts and interaction with others.
On Saturday, July 20, the 25-mile Soldier Ride Hamptons sets off at 9 a.m. sharp—registration and packet pickup begins at 7 a.m. and the opening ceremony is at 8:30 a.m.—at Amagansett Farm (551 Montauk Highway) in Amagansett. The route moves through East Hampton, up Long Lane and onto Route 114 into Sag Harbor and North Haven before returning to the starting point. A barbecue from noon–4 p.m. awaits riders who complete the course at Amagansett Farm.