To the few of you who've managed to struggle through reading all of my rambling posts, you've heard me mention a time or ten The Wounded Warrior Project. Well my trip has culminated with my visiting their headquarters... As one would expect, things went well, I was happy, and Rockstar got into stuff. This is that story...
I stayed the night with my hookah loving buddies in Hudson, FL (NOTE: lots of people questioned just WHAT was IN the hookah. No worries, it was cherry tobacco. Even I'm not so dumb as to post about drugs or anything, and that's not really "my thing" (or theirs) anyhow...) I got up the next morning and readied myself for my trip to Jacksonville. My friend was busily adding to his blog, something he'd never even HEARD of the day before. We ran out and got lunch in his brothers brand new GT 500 Shelby Mustang which he is storing for him. Just to let everyone know, I did massive smoky burnouts, lots of donuts, got it up on two wheels, and knocked out a few "Dukes of Hazzard" style bridge jumps in this cherry new car. Ok not really, but mostly because Logan was wise enough not to give me the keys, but it's coming, mark my words... After pounding down some steak and sweeeeeeeeeeeeeeet tea, I headed to Jacksonville and the Wounded Warrior Project.
The drive up to Jacksonville took me back across the landlocked central Florida area, where the Spanish moss grows in abundance, and teeth apparently don't. There were quite a few large thoroughbred horse farms which brought back memories of my horseback riding adventures... If it's possible to crash a horse, I'm your guy... My g/f in undergrad had a huge Tennessee Walker, and horses were her life. She tried relentlessly to get me to ride, and finally I agreed and she taught me how. Now I've ridden horses a lot in the past, but this was different. They ride bareback. She kept her horse with this old pork barrel like mare that had been living the good life sitting out in a field and eating grass for the last several years, generally avoiding morons like me. This was about to change.
Now I'd ridden a few other horses with her before so I generally had the hang of the bareback thing, but that was always on old broken down nags. I have to say that my first few jaunts were scary since there was no real way to "hold on". Once one becomes accustomed to riding bareback however, saddles become even scarier. Well this horse I was riding, Gunner, was a bit more spirited than the others and was also my most regular mount. We generally did well on our long trail rides as long as Gunner could follow her walker, Wyatt. The problems would arise when they got separated or Gunner couldn't see Wyatt. Gunner would become nervous and unresponsive to me, and I would mostly sit there stupidly and wonder what to do next. My seventeen minutes of experience didn't give me much to fall back on... Well one day my friend decided she'd had enough of this and it was time to break Gunner of this little issue. She decided I would ride her monster horse Wyatt back to the barn, and she would ride Gunner a different way home to break the separation anxiety. Did I mention NO ONE rode Wyatt except her? Did I mention he was HUGE? Was it mentioned that I had more time on the nickel horse in front of the drugstore than I did on real horses? Yes, this didn't go well.
Well as we changed mounts she reminded me just to be firm and relax and there was nothing to worry about. Easy for her to say, she wasn't sitting on top of a friggin Warhorse. Well Wyatt and I set off for the barn just a few miles away, and things went somewhat smoothly. Wyatt was a little agitated and kept looking back for the other two, but continued to follow my commands, and I started congratulating myself on my mastery of the beasts. We made it to the home stretch where the biggest danger still lay ahead. The Goat Farm. Now for the equestrian challenged like myself, let me explain something. Horses are giant musclebound thundering beasts that are scared of absolutely nothing. Well nothing except dangerous stuff. Things like werewolves, nuclear warheads, goats, paper bags, their own shadow, lawnmowers, gnat farts, windblown leaves and most everything else that would strike fear in the hearts of anything. The big test for me was to get Wyatt past the goat farm without him entering into a blind panic. I'm sure you think you know where this is going... Well you're wrong! In a demonstration of my horsemanship skills, I navigated Wyatt past the goat farm without incident, in spite of numerous bleats from the predatory goats, and a few attempts to get away made by Wyatt. With the big danger behind us and myself preening atop my steed, we made our way down the last little way to the barn which I could already see above the corn. This last strip was a six foot wide grass strip with a cornfield on the left, and a big ditch and road on the right. Well as we entered the last hundred yard strip a riding lawnmower was being piloted along at the near end. Recognizing the danger I tightened the lead and navigated a nervous Wyatt along past it and onto the path. Then across the road another riding lawnmower came around the side of a house and started circling the lawn like the carnivore it obviously was. Wyattt began to get more nervous and started dancing a little bit. I started getting more nervous and began trying not to soil my shorts. I kept Nervous Nellie pointed towards the end of the strip and the safety of the barn while gently coaxing him home. Then a third lawnmower appeared, this time on a trailer on the back of a huge truck. It was at the end of the path. This was not a good thing. Apparently using their pack hunting skills, the feral mowers had manged to encircle us on the narrow path. Wyatt just stopped. Then the truck with the mower in back turned towards us. Wyatt was done. Realizing that his life was in obvious danger as the rabid and blood crazed lawnmowers descended on us for the kill, Wyatt did a quick calculation and decided he could run faster if he could drop a quick 200 pounds. He started bucking to get me off, and I started trying to hold on and get him back under control. When that didn't work, he whirled around in a circle and tried to stop fast to roll me off. My adrenaline filled legs held on as I screamed "WHOOOOOOA" in a prepubescent pitch. Seeing the the frenzied lawnmowers were nearly upon us, Wyatt started bucking and spinning at the same time. With this he managed to throw me high up onto his neck, but also ended up with himself toeing the ditch and slightly off balance. As I reigned rearwards and screamed "BACK", Wyatt rolled one wild eye up to look at me. Noting my unapproved seating position on his neck and sensing freedom was near, Wyatt executed one last little forward buck, and off I went. Now however, Wyatt was a little too far forward over the ditch and nowhere to go but down. Knowing that would allow the mowers to descend upon him for the killing blow, he jumped out into the road where he saw the mower laden truck descending in for the kill. Scrambling hard to get traction and whirl away, he lost all balance and fell on his left side just as I heard the sickening "THUMP" of my friends most favorite possession getting hit by a truck.
Well the truck hit Wyatt gull on in the back as he was lying on his side, and he spun a full 360 before coming to a stop. I sat there stupidly trying to figure out how I was gonna explain why she was now the proud owner of a half ton of dog food. Well upon completing his pirouette, Wyatt leaped to all fours and scrambled towards the barn. I was relieved. Then Wyatt remembered Gunner and company weren't AT the barn. Then Wyatt went the other way. At a high rate of speed. Why me... Well I apologized to the guy looking at his dented bumper and took off running after the horse, passing the now silent lawnmowers as their riders just sat and watched the spectacle continue to unfold in front of them. I'd chased Wyatt a good mile when I finally saw Gunner and my friend come running up from behind with her screaming at me. Apparently the only thing she'd been told was "yeah that idiot on that other horse just got it hit by a truck. They went thatta way..." Finally she managed to find Wyatt running in huge circles in the field which we'd departed earlier, still wild eyed and avoiding me. Once she got him under control we managed to assess the damage. Amazingly, Wyatt had a few minor scrapes on his flank, but was otherwise unscathed. Fate smiled on us all when Wyatt fell on his side, allowing his precious legs to avoid contact with the bumper while absorbing the energy of the hit on his massive hind end. I was relieved. Wyatt was happy to be back with the herd. My friend was still ticked. It was a long silent walk home...
Anyhow, enough of my equestrian inability, back to Florida. As I mentioned, central Florida is mostly poor rural farmland like so much of the south. As I neared the Atlantic coast, the urban sprawl of Jacksonville replaced the falling in trailers and moss covered oaks of the inland. Once in Jacksonville proper I managed to make my way through the spaghetti like organization of the inner city interstate system to the manicured corporate park that housed the Wounded Warrior Project. I was excited to see the headquarters of the organization that's done so much for me. As I pulled the Bean into the parking lot, they waved me in to the right door as RTD and I dismounted and headed in.
Inside, the entire staff applauded Rocky as he triumphantly entered the hallowed halls of the WWP. I think a few people noticed I was there too. Rocky was his usual timid self as he ran to and fro, jamming his nose into everyone's crotch. Finally he settled down a bit and I was able to let him off the leash while everyone welcomed us. The staff was so kind as to give RTD and I a plaque with the Wounded Warrior logo on it, which I must admit I was proud to get. I'd seen them before at events they'd hosted and always wanted one for myself. After introductions were made, the staff was dismissed back to more important matters of running the organization as I was given a tour of the facility. Rocky still jut ran in circles accepting all manner of attention from anyone willing to give it to him.
When you first walk in, you're greeted with a foyer containing the wall sized logo, the mission statement, and some pictures of our wounded. Off to the left is the exhibit portion of the Sacrifice Center, the name bestowed upon the headquarters building. The first wall you see stretches down to your right and contains stories about some of the stories of the soldiers that the project that the WWP has helped. Also is the current focal injury that the WWP has highlighted, currently the Traumatic Brain Injury. Rounding the corner of that wall to the left stretches the sponsor wall where notable celebrities pictures and stories are displayed for all to read. All of these placards are interchangeable so current stories can always be rotated in. Another left turn brings you to the inside "room" of those first two walls where the core values of the project are listed. Each of these values is listed along with a picture of a wounded warrior who can be heard describing what these values mean to them on the video that's displayed there. These wrap around to your right in a rotunda like fashion, as well as a couple silhouettes outfitted with prosthetics which have been donated by actual service members after they are no longer usable. The centerpiece of the rotunda are a couple of mannequins outfitted in the latest gear being used to help keep warriors OUT of the project. One must remember that the best situation would be no injuries. To the right of the rotunda, the names of sponsoring companies are proudly displayed for all to see. Crossing across the rotunda brings you to the hall to the exit on your left, and the offices on the right. Displayed prominently on this wall are stories of "Alive Days" and the pictures of the injured they belong to. Finally as you make your way back to the entrance foyer there is a wall of letters on your right containing letters written by the wounded and their families, detailing their appreciation for the project. There are lots of them, all unsolicited. This comprises the "tour" part of the Project. Also in the same area is the TRACK center which will be used to help educate our fallen to get them ready to go back into the world and rejoin the society the gave so much for. While I was there several members of Aaron Rental's headquarters touring while debating on helping sponsor the WWP. I mention this to draw attention to the fact that this is all privately funded. This isn't some governmental right/left wing organization wasting your tax dollars on $4683 toilet seats. These are real guys, many of whom are also wounded, doing their best to ensure our nation's wounded aren't forgotten. Take a moment to check out the WWP site and see what I'm so enthused about.
Anyhow, as my tour drew to a close, I heard RTD's diesel engine growl emanating down the hall, and moved quickly to see what he was into. I showed up to see Rocky with a cornered staff member. RTD was snarling and growling at the largest guy he could find, who was a looking a bit worried at the moment. He said RTD initially noticed he he prosthetic legs poking out from his shorts, and then started in on the growl when he reached down to pet him. What I noticed was RTD's stumpy tail wagging at 97 mph. I grabbed Rocky and immediately launched him into a vicious sounding playfight there in the foyer, much to the horror/amusement of all who saw and heard this. It sounded like RTD was out for blood... Once everyone saw RTD was just wanting to "playfight" tensions were eased, and Rocky was able to turn back to his first "victim" who now eagerly smacked RTD around. Turns out Rocky's "Cujo" moments are just his mentally challenged attempts at initiating a bout of playing with anyone he thinks will be game for it.
Finally my time at the headquarters drew to a close and a few of us headed out for dinner. We ate at Dave and Buster's, a first for me, and traded stories about med school, the WWP, and other trips we'd been on. Afterwards we split ways and I headed to my friends place there in Jacksonville for the night. The trip is sadly drawing to a close and I'm not looking forward to its' end. Fortunately for you, the loyal readers, WWP is sending me to Alaska in a couple weeks, so my trip isn't over yet! While RTD won't be there, I'm sure there will be adventures to write about so don't delete my sight just yet! Until then I've still got a bit more to go, so keep checking back! Homeward bound in the near future!!...