An interactive session with bottlenose dolphins in the Florida Keys and a bike ride across the Keys longest bridge, provided inspirational therapy for about 60 wounded military veterans during a stop within Soldier Ride, a cycling event taking place in the Keys that concludes Sunday in Key West.
Soldiers swam with the dolphins at Dolphin Research Center Friday afternoon, shared flipper shakes and learned dolphin training techniques.
For Neil Boekel, a 34-year-old former Army staff sergeant injured after a 2010 explosive ambush in Baghdad, Iraq, the experience of interacting with a dolphin was more than he expected.
"It was like giving a puppy to a roomful of kids," he said. "We all just wanted to touch it, play with it-- we just wanted its attention as much as it wanted ours. It's kind of funny, we all just turned into a bunch of goobers, playing with the dolphin in the water, really."
The experience was equally rewarding for staff at DRC.
"At Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys we really value the work our soldiers do to keep us safe, and this is our way of honoring their service," said Rita Irwin, DRC president and CEO. "When the soldiers get into the water with the dolphins, they're introduced to another being who's interested in interacting with them … they just have this moment of connection and it opens up the possibilities that there's joy to be had, for both the dolphins and the soldiers. It's magic.
Prior to the dolphin encounters, participants pedaled across the Seven Mile Bridge the longest span of 43 that help comprise the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. Some riders, who are missing one or more limbs after combat injuries, used specially adapted bicycles to participate in support of their injured comrades.
Organized by the Wounded Warrior Project, the event raises public awareness and support for the needs of severely injured members of the military involved in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, provides rehabilitative opportunities and funds basic comfort items for wounded soldiers upon their return to the U.S.
"It's not necessarily what we're doing, it's the group itself," Boekel added. "In this group you find someone who's riding a bike for the first time, somebody who's getting outside again for the first time.
"What you get to see on these rides and these events is you get to see the future, you get to see a little glimpse of hope," he said. "You know where you are now, and you get to see little bit of what tomorrow might have."