Veterans are taking to the streets of the city and suburbs this weekend on a veterans support organization's annual bicycle "soldier ride."
For some, it means riding hand cycles, trikes and bicycles retrofitted to accommodate injuries they have from their time in the service.
But the most important thing, they say, is they're doing it together.
Friday morning's 17-mile bike ride through Rosemont, Des Plaines, Park Ridge and Schiller Park marked the first time in years some got to ride a bicycle. Event organizers with the Wounded Warrior Project say one of the goals of the four-day series of cycling events is to encourage physical fitness and healthy living among veterans -- especially those who may not be that physically active anymore.
But the event also meant it was the first time in a while that they felt a sense of camaraderie and unity with those beside them.
"This makes me feel very good," said Michael Boner, 44, a Navy veteran from Glenview now living in downstate Charleston. "This brings back the 'we leave no one behind.' Everyone that started today finished today."
A total of 48 participants, donning cycling jerseys, shorts and helmets, rode with a police escort along a 17-mile route that began at Rosemont's fire station on River Road and ended at The Ballpark at Rosemont. That's where the veterans played a softball game against members of Rosemont's public safety department.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the veterans visited Soldier Field, Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field. A 25-mile soldier ride is planned Saturday from downtown Chicago to Highland Park.
Similar rides occur across the country every summer -- and in Germany and the United Kingdom.
"This is an experience for the Warriors to come out and experience camaraderie and make new friends," said Aaron Rock, a veteran Marine corporal and online engagement coordinator at the Wounded Warrior Project's Chicago office. "It's a comfortable thing for Warriors to be in a community."
Boner, like many veterans who have returned from service, is still battling from the emotional wounds of war. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Boner says he had no way to deal with his demons after returning from Iraq. So he turned to alcohol.
Serving with the Navy as a senior chief hospital corpsman, he was part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit that made the initial push into Baghdad in 2003.
Six years later, he was home safe, but forever scarred by his experiences.
During one night of heavy drinking, Boner got on his motorcycle and started driving.
"I had an invincible attitude. Nothing's going to stop me now."
He crashed his motorcycle near downstate Arcola, and was declared dead on scene, until a paramedic heard him gurgling. He was rushed by helicopter to the nearest trauma center in Urbana.
When he later awoke from a coma, his ex-wife was holding a business card dropped off by the staff at the Wounded Warrior Project.
Initially blind in both eyes and unable to walk, Boner spent eight months in rehabilitation at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.
Today he's healed physically -- save for being deaf in one ear -- has been sober for 285 days and counting, and is in better spirits.
What helps him cope is being involved in activities like Friday's soldier ride.
"Wounded Warrior has saved my life," he said.