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Wounded Warriors Interact With Florida Keys Dolphins As Therapy

MARATHON (CBSMiami/FKNB) – Interacting with bottlenose dolphins in the Florida Keys provided physical and emotional therapy Sunday for a group of wounded U.S. military veterans, at the conclusion of Wounded Warrior Project's three-day Soldier Ride cycling event down the Keys' Overseas Highway.

The soldiers, who have wounds ranging from missing limbs to less visible psychological injuries, visited Dolphin Research Center where warriors in all stages of physical and mental health recovery have been engaging with dolphins for over 25 years. The center's founder and chief operating officer is a Vietnam veteran.

The group learned about marine mammals and what motivates them to effect various behaviors. The veterans and dolphins shared kisses, flipper shakes, high fives and even underwater handstands and dorsal pulls.

It was the second Soldier Ride event for U.S. Marine Corps Captain Andrew Hairston, whose left leg was amputated above the knee following an injury sustained when he was hit by a distracted motorist while moving to a new home after returning from deployment. He said WWP activities help him and his group of fellow active-duty service members build confidence and warm up to new experiences.

"They actually force us to step out of our comfort zone and do things that we typically wouldn't normally do," Hairston said. "I mean, how often do you get the opportunity to swim with dolphins, play with them, and whatnot?"

"Guys who normally don't swim were hopping in the water to swim with them, so it's a great opportunity to step out of your comfort zone" he added.

A first-time Soldier Ride participant, veteran Joseph Beaudry, a retired U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class, encouraged other military vets to take part in the experience no matter when they served.

"I've been out of the military for 20 years; why I haven't reached out and done any of these is beyond me," Beaudry said. "It really makes you feel like you completed the mission, and some of us never got to complete the mission being a wounded veteran."

On Friday and Saturday, the warriors pedaled across segments of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, including the iconic Seven Mile Bridge, and into Key West.

Soldier Ride is organized annually by the Wounded Warrior Project to raise public awareness and support the needs of severely injured members of the military who have been involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas conflicts. Funds raised help develop peer-mentoring programs, foster veterans' independence and arrange needed transport between home and rehabilitation hospital.

Community organizations such as Dolphin Research Center help support the initiative, providing services at no or reduced costs. The dolphin interaction session was funded by the Charles Evans Foundation.

(©2022 CBS Local Media. 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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