Under the mid-afternoon sun, a man who lost his legs to war rolled into a parking lot near the Beef O'Brady's restaurant off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, almost 12 hours after setting out from Orlando on a hand-peddled bicycle.
For Joshua Cope, who was severely injured in an explosion in Baghdad in 2006, Saturday's 113-mile ride along the back roads of Central Florida was completed.
Sweat pouring off his face, he zipped past the Freedom High School JROTC honor guard, past a truck from Pepin Distributors selling beer, past the Beef O'Brady grill cooking burgers and hot dogs. He rolled to a halt in front of the children's bounce house. There Erica, his wife of nine years, and the couple's three children – the eldest held a red sign proclaiming "#1 Daddy" - ran forward to welcome him.
"The hardest part was about 20 miles out," said Cope, 29, after a phalanx of well-wishers stepped up to shake his hand. "But we were getting this done. There was no giving up."
Until about three months ago, Cope said, the Top End Force G bicycle, which he received from the Veterans Administration more than a year ago as part of his therapy, was largely unused.
Then he and some of his Army buddies, who also left Iraq with various injuries, were searching for a way to raise money for Building Homes for Heroes, an organization that helps provide homes for the wounded and their families.
Cope said he looked at his bike and came up with an idea.
"I would ride 100 miles," he said.
The plan was to ride from the Orlando area - Building Homes for Heroes is raising money there to provide a home for another soldier wounded in Iraq -- to Tampa. Here, Sgt. Joel Tavera – he was severely burned, had a traumatic brain injury, and lost part of his right leg, sight in both eyes and the fingers on his left hand in a rocket attack in Iraq in 2008 – already has received a home with help from the organization.
Cope, who never really rode before his injury, said he trained intensely. "I did it to help the guys and raise awareness," he said.
Afterward, when Tavera arrived, the two wounded veterans thanked each other.
"I have the endurance to do a lot of things," said Tavera, who has walked in 5k races; most recently the Gasparilla 5k. "But I don't have the endurance to do what Josh did. Man, he is amazing."