MARATHON, Florida Keys — Interacting with bottlenose dolphins in the Florida Keys provided physical and emotional therapy Sunday to more than 30 wounded U.S. military veterans, at the conclusion of the three-day Soldier Ride cycling event down the Keys Overseas Highway.
The soldiers, suffering from varying injuries ranging from missing limbs to traumatic brain injury, visited Dolphin Research Center where they shared dolphin kisses, flipper shakes and dorsal pulls as they learned about marine mammals.
Dolphins at DRC have been interacting with wounded warriors for more than 25 years, according to Mandy Rodriguez, a Vietnam veteran and chief operating officer of Dolphin Research Center.
“Every animal is magic and they accept you for who you are and that’s a big deal for us warriors,” Rodriguez said. “Look, every wound is not a physical wound and there are a lot of wounds that can’t be seen.
“And that’s where the dolphins come in and Dolphin Research Center comes in,” he said.
U.S. Army Captain Kimberly DeFiori, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury following service in Afghanistan had the opportunity to meet Cayo and said the experience was helpful to her and very interactive.
“They are definitely very interactive social creatures,” DeFiori said of the dolphins, adding “it’s okay to have whatever disability you have.
“It’s just a matter of identifying what is going on inside,” DeFiori said about vets who return from service with mental disabilities. “It might not be the same person that deployed and we’ve gotta’ find new ways to enjoy life.
Participating in soldier ride and getting a chance to interact with dolphins helped her with that, she said.
“Just get out there and try it,” she said. “You don’t have to cover it up.”
On Friday and Saturday, the warriors pedaled across segments of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, including the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest of 43 spans
Soldier Ride was organized by the Wounded Warrior Project to raise public awareness and support 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 at no or reduced costs.
The dolphin interaction session was funded by the Charles Evans Foundation.