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Around 100 wounded veterans rode through the area Aug. 9 to show the benefits of exercise and camaraderie.

Members of Project Hero arrived on all manner of bicycles starting on Highway 23 west then, heading into town late in the afternoon. Reedsburg Police Department vehicles directed traffic and blared their sirens to honor and welcome the former servicemen and women, who spent the evening at the Voyageur Inn on Viking Drive. The next morning they departed for Madison.

The 500-mile ride, dubbed the Great Lakes Challenge, travels through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Each day involves about 75 miles of riding, according to Project Hero. It started July 31 and concludes Aug. 14. The ninth annual event included four Wisconsin residents, two from Madison and two from Sheboygan.

California-based Project Hero provides rides and services to help those who’ve suffered due to physical and mental injuries or sexual assault and harassment. Exercise, fresh air and beautiful scenery, and cheering supporters can revitalize wounded veterans, said Peter Bylsma, director of marketing communications for Project Hero.

He said the ride was sponsored by UnitedHealthcare. Cycling was chosen for its low-impact nature and broad appeal. Many kinds of veterans ride, including those who have lost limbs, experienced traumatic brain injuries or live with post-traumatic stress. Some veterans have their own bikes but Project Hero has provided cycles for those with special needs. Funding comes from sponsors and donations.

Events are part of the group’s Ride 2 Recovery program, which includes journeys across the United States.

“This is a therapeutic ride that helps the riders achieve goals and develop resilience,” he said. “We get them out of the dark places and into healthy lifestyles.”

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Rides include maintenance and support vehicles in case a participant needs assistance, Bylsma said. Cyclists ride in just about any weather condition aside from snow.

Thom and Sherri Smith of Madison found a moment to stop and chat during their time at the Voyageur Inn and were glad to have the chance to participate in the ride. Both are retired Army personnel; Thom Smith said he was a captain and Sherri was a sergeant first class.

Sherri Smith said she has several lingering effects from her time in the military, though she declined to give details. Her husband rode for support and to spend time with other vets.

Both decided to try a ride in 2013, she said.

“From there it was a love affair to get out and be with our bikes,” she said. “You get to do it with the most inspiring people next to you.”

Project Hero is a resource for veterans looking to maintain health or create new habits, Thom Smith said. Physical activity and stress management are critical for veteran’s bodies and minds.

“This has really brought (some veterans) back into life,” he said. “It keeps us healthy and keeps us young.”

Follow Heather Stanek on Twitter @HStanek1 or reach her at 608-697-6353.

I am the reporter and photographer for the Reedsburg Times-Press. I also shoot, edit and post videos for stories.

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