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MARATHON, Florida Keys (CBSMiami/FKNB)  —  About 60 wounded military veterans got some inspiration therapy with bottlenose dolphins during their Soldier Ride in the Florida Keys.

Soldiers swam with the dolphins at Dolphin Research Center Friday afternoon, shared flipper shakes and learned dolphin training techniques.

For Neil Boekel, a 34-year-old former Army staff sergeant injured after a 2010 explosive ambush in Baghdad, Iraq, the experience of interacting with a dolphin was more than he expected.

“It was like giving a puppy to a roomful of kids,” he said. “We all just wanted to touch it, play with it– we just wanted its attention as much as it wanted ours. It’s kind of funny, we all just turned into a bunch of goobers, playing with the dolphin in the water, really.”

The experience was equally rewarding for staff at DRC.

“At Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys we really value the work our soldiers do to keep us safe, and this is our way of honoring their service,” said Rita Irwin, DRC president and CEO. “When the soldiers get into the water with the dolphins, they’re introduced to another being who’s interested in interacting with them … they just have this moment of connection and it opens up the possibilities that there’s joy to be had, for both the dolphins and the soldiers. It’s magic.

Prior to the dolphin encounters, participants pedaled across the Seven Mile Bridge, the longest span of 43 that help comprise the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. Some riders, who are missing one or more limbs after combat injuries, used specially adapted bicycles to participate in support of their injured comrades.

Participants in Soldier Ride pedal across the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, near Marathon, Fla. About 60 vets -- most suffering severe injuries from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and their supporters joined in the ride down segments of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. The event is staged by the Wounded Warrior Project to help restore injured soldiers' physical and emotional well-being. It concludes in Key West Sunday, Jan. 11. (Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau Photo)

Participants in Soldier Ride pedal across the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, near Marathon, Fla. About 60 vets — most suffering severe injuries from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and their supporters joined in the ride down segments of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. The event is staged by the Wounded Warrior Project to help restore injured soldiers’ physical and emotional well-being. It concludes in Key West Sunday, Jan. 11. (Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau Photo)

Organized by the Wounded Warrior Project, the event raises public awareness and support for the needs of severely injured members of the military involved in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, provides rehabilitative opportunities and funds basic comfort items for wounded soldiers upon their return to the U.S.

“It’s not necessarily what we’re doing, it’s the group itself,” Boekel added. “In this group you find someone who’s riding a bike for the first time, somebody who’s getting outside again for the first time.

“What you get to see on these rides and these events is you get to see the future, you get to see a little glimpse of hope,” he said. “You know where you are now, and you get to see little bit of what tomorrow might have.”

The ride is set to end in Key West on Sunday.

(©2015 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or
redistributed. The Florida Keys News Bureau contributed to this report.)

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