For Greg Amira, almost nothing beats the freedom of being on his recumbent bicycle. When he's riding, it seems his cares are a million miles away.
He doesn't feel the constant pain from the back injury he sustained three years ago when his Army infantry convoy was attacked in Iraq. Nor does he feel the anguish from watching others around him die when the World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
When Amira is riding, he is free to feel the wind in his face, happy that life's troubles can be left behind for a little while.
"It's my passion," said the 41-year-old resident of Trinity in Pasco County. "Learning to ride that bike is one of the best things that's ever happened to me."
On Monday, Amira and about 200 war-wounded veterans will leave on their bikes from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for the third annual Florida Ride 2 Recovery. The event, sponsored by United Healthcare along with several veterans organizations, is a 350-mile, six-day trek winding through Central Florida on its way to Mayport Naval Base in Jacksonville. On Monday, the group will make an overnight stop in Weeki Wachee before heading for Lady Lake on Tuesday.
It will be Amira's first attempt at a bike ride of such length on the specially outfitted machine he has ridden for a little more than two years. Still, he's confident he will make the journey just fine.
"I've been training pretty much every day for the past several months," said Amira. "I've done 15 to 20 miles on the Suncoast Parkway without any problem. I think I just need to get my mind in gear to do the 50 miles a day we'll be doing."
Amira says the recumbent bike, which allows him to ride in leaning position, offers the kind of comfort he could never enjoy with a regular bike. Because of his back ailment, he would never be able to lean forward for any length of time.
"Until I tried it, I was pretty certain I would never be able to ride a bike again," he said. "It's helped my life tremendously."
Indeed, the past 10 years have been filled with trauma and hard times for Amira. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was on the 73rd floor of No. 2 World Trade Center, where he worked as a vice president for Morgan Stanley. After the airplanes hit the towers in New York City that morning, he was helping in the evacuation of victims when he became trapped and buried in the rubble as the skyscrapers fell. He woke up late that day in the hospital and learned he was one of the few survivors pulled from that area of the building.
Four years later, Amira moved to his mother's home in Pasco County. A year later, his Army Reserve unit was called up for duty in Iraq. In 2007, Amira suffered severe head, neck and back injuries while rescuing fellow members of his platoon whose vehicle had plunged into a sewage ditch in an attack. He spent 13 months at the Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., before earning a medical retirement in July 2008.
Despite the physical limitations from his injuries, Amira says he tries to remain upbeat and positive. A member of several veterans groups, he devotes a lot of his time to the Wounded Warrior Project, which along with the American Legion and the USO has helped to support Ride 2 Recovery.
According to Ride 2 Recovery spokeswoman Deborah Spano, event sponsors have helped raise funds for cycling programs for more than 2,000 wounded veterans all across the country. The Florida event is one of six major rides conducted annually by the organization.
"Anyone who participates will tell you it's quite a challenge," Spano said. "It's an amazing event, in that it's geared toward individuals, but in reality it becomes a team effort. By the time the ride is finished everyone has a great sense of accomplishment — that they've done this for themselves and for each other."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]