“As a wounded vet, I just want to say I appreciate you and would be honored if you would take a picture with me,” Williams told McNaughton.
“He personifies the military — the entire military in one person,” Williams said of McNaughton, after the picture was snapped. “And he remains so humble.”
McNaughton, who lost his right leg in 2003 to a landmine in Afghanistan, was preparing to fly to France, where he will join 120 other wounded veterans for a historic bike ride.
McNaughton is the vice president of Veterans Assistance for Ride 2 Recovery, a national group that uses cycling to help wounded veterans recover physically and emotionally.
The Ride 2 Recovery veterans will ride through France for the next 10 days, stopping at historic sites from World War II. The trip will culminate with the riders participating in Stage 6 of the Tour de France.
A special part of the trip for both McNaughton and a fellow Louisiana veteran, Sgt. 1st Class Larry Jester, is that World War II veterans will join the cyclists at the historic locations.
“You can see the movies or read the books, but we’ll never be able to understand what these men went through or thank them enough,” McNaughton said. “To be able to see a little piece of their experience through their eyes, it will be amazing.”
One World War II veteran has not returned to Normandy since he fought there more than 60 years ago, McNaughton said.
“Just to be there with him when he goes through this, it will amazing,” he said.
The American troops participating will be joined by injured soldiers from France and Germany on the ride, he said.
“We might not speak the same language, but we’ve fought in the same war,” McNaughton said.
McNaugton said cycling is not just a sport to him — it’s both a physical and emotional rehabilitation that helped him come back from a life-altering injury.
“I get a sense of fulfillment every time I ride,” he said. “And seeing these guys and girls at the beginning of their road to recovery, I’ve been through it. I can be there for them.”
Cycling has taken McNaughton and Jester throughout the United States on some of the most peaceful and scenic trails, where he bonds with the other riders who are also recovering from war wounds.
The organization builds bikes suited to the special needs of veterans with physical disabilities.
One veteran who lost both his legs and his eyesight to an IED can ride the route on a tandem bike with a partner who steers and pedals while the veteran uses his hands to crank.
“It’s not an easy ride for anyone involved,” McNaughton said. “But it’s about being with people who have the same experiences as you, and accomplishing something.”
Some of the participant‘s wounds are visible; others are under the surface.
Jester, who’s been with Ride 2 Recovery since its founding, said he makes it a point to look for participants who might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“At the end of the day, when we’re physically exhausted, we look back and laugh about the hardships of the ride,” Jester said. “We open up, and that’s when the emotional scars start healing.”
The trip is sponsored by American Airlines, Air Compassion for Veterans and United Health Care.