Wounded Aiken veteran finds peace in bike ride

When Daniel Smith looks at the national Wounded Warrior Project’s logo, he sees an image of himself – past and present.

On the right is Smith seven years ago: a National Guard soldier being rescued from the wreckage of a roadside bomb that blasted a Humvee he was riding in while performing ground clearance in Iraq.

To the left is Smith today: a rejuvenated 15-year Army veteran whose new lease on life has him biking the country, lifting up his fallen brothers one mile at a time.

The Aiken resident’s latest victory lap will come in two weeks in Boston, where he will bike the New England coastline. The 2013 Soldier Ride is a Wounded Warrior cycling event that brings together injured veterans for three days of physical health and wellness, camaraderie, and healing.

“At some point, you change,” Smith said, referring to the Wounded Warrior Project’s logo, a soldier with another draped over his back. “You’re no longer the one who’s getting carried off the battlefield; you’re the soldier who’s actually doing the carrying.

“And that’s where I am. I’m whole again.”

Smith spent 90 days in Iraq after the roadside bomb jolted him from the gunners hatch of his Humvee, broke his back and his eardrum, and ruptured several spinal nerve blocks. He was sent to Germany, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland and back to Fort Lewis, before being stationed at Fort Gordon to be closer to home as he rehabilitated.

“I really did not know how badly I was injured … and when I was released from the military, I lost everything, because I had no financial protection at the time,” Smith said.

When Smith rides his recumbent tricycle through downtown Boston on Sept. 21 – with a police escort in front and cheering fans around him – it will be a fitting end to his amazing comeback.

Smith’s life changed in 2008 after he attended a Soldier Ride event at Fort Bragg, N.C. He met fellow veterans who had undergone similar combat experiences and other riders who had learned to cycle despite amputations.

The stories inspired Smith to never give up and always “keep moving.”

“It brought me out of a real dark place, opening up a lot of doors for me to lead a more active lifestyle,” said Smith, who is nicknamed “Larry” because of his vocal similarities to Larry the Cable Guy and his ability to make people laugh.

Despite his disabilities, Smith has become involved in the military’s Paralympic Program; rides for the Hope for the Warriors team; and has won several races on his Catrike 700, a lightweight recumbent tricycle that reclines peddlers in aerodynamic positions to help them travel faster.

His trophy case includes first-place awards from the 2011 Midwest Valor Games in Chicago and the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., where he biked 26 miles in 1 hour, 36 minutes.

“You cannot just sit around,” Smith said, a message he hopes to pass along during the Boston ride. “You have to get involved and make that initial push, or else you’ll never get better.”

This summer, Smith became a candidate for a spinal cord stimulator, an implantable device that uses electrical signals to control chronic pain. The clearance came after seven years of being sent around the country.

Now, he has a renewed sense of faith and the support of his wife and his friends at the Wounded Warrior Project.

Smith said he rides the North Augusta Greeneway three to four miles a day for therapy and wants to build a fabrication center at his home to adjust his bike for off-road riding.

“We all get in bad places in our lives,” Smith said. “It’s what we do about it that changes us forever.”

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