MARATHON, Florida Keys — Interacting with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the Florida Keys provided physical and emotional therapy Sunday for 44 wounded U.S. military veterans, at the conclusion of the three-day Florida Keys Soldier Ride cycling event down the Keys Overseas Highway.
The soldiers, who suffer from wounds ranging from missing limbs to traumatic brain injury or less visible psychological injuries, visited Dolphin Research Center near Marathon where recovering warriors have been engaging with dolphins for over 25 years — its founder and chief operating officer himself a Vietnam veteran.
The group shared dolphin kisses, flipper shakes, high fives and dorsal pulls as they learned about marine mammals and what motivates them to execute various behaviors.
Retired U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jennifer Caudillo, whose left leg was amputated below the knee following an injury stateside, had the opportunity to meet dolphins Windley and Santini during an interactive experience.
“My experience with the dolphins was absolutely exhilarating,” Caudillo said, adding “I felt alive, me and the other wounded warriors being in the water together.”
Caudillo encourages other veterans to participate in soldier ride events.
“You can go from completely sad and hurting and not wanting to be social to being out here playing with dolphins,” she said. “It’s a big experience and it can really change your life around.”
On Friday and Saturday, the warriors pedaled across segments of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway including the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest of the highway’s 43 spans, and ended in Key West.
Soldier Ride is organized by the Wounded Warrior Project to raise public awareness of and support for the needs of severely injured members of the military involved in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Community organizations such as DRC help support the initiative, providing services free or at reduced cost.