BY: Rick Barrett
Take Brian Steuber. The former U.S. Army staff sergeant plans to ride his Harley-Davidson Road King from his home in Washington, D.C., across the country to connect with other veterans who are motorcyclists — making a stop in Milwaukee to thank Harley employees for their support of military personnel.
Steuber, who deployed twice to Iraq, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.
"The memories, flashbacks, night sweats and anger issues, at times, are calmed by a wonderful woman in my life — my wife. But there is that 50% she can't help with, and that's where my 2001 Road King has come into play," Steuber said.
"My medical prescription is 800-plus pounds of American-made metal and chrome. No drug can compare; no feeling is better. That's why I ride," he added.
Many veterans say riding a bike allows them to set their problems aside for a short time. Even if they're just hanging out with friends in a parking lot, they still get the good feelings associated with motorcycling.
"I would prefer to ride a bike than see my therapist. With the bike, I can just turn on the music and go for hours," said Eileen Fox, an Army veteran from Mosinee and member of the Stilettos on Steel motorcycle group.
On the motorcycle, you can lean your body into the wind and forget about everything else. It's a natural break from your worries, partly because riding keeps you focused on your surroundings.
"You just concentrate on the road," said Rob Roberts with the VFW Riders at VFW Post 1865 in Kenosha and a Navy veteran of the Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Shield.
"It's my sanity check. That's what my wife calls it," Roberts said.
Wounded Warrior ProjectWhat some people call "motorcycle therapy" isn't exclusive to veterans, individuals with PTSD, or Harley-Davidson riders. But the world's largest manufacturer of heavyweight bikes has been closely associated with the military and veterans since 1916.
Harley recently began working with the Wounded Warrior Project, a national effort that helps veterans with physical and emotional issues.
The company and its U.S. dealerships have raised money and helped organize events for Wounded Warrior, including a "Rolling Odyssey" ride over Memorial Day weekend, when 10 Wounded Warrior alumni and others traveled from Houston to Baton Rouge, La., stopping at Harley dealerships along the way.
They rode during the day. In the evening, the veterans held group sessions that addressed some of the issues in their lives.
"We talked through a lot of things, and it was very healing," said John Roberts, executive vice president of warrior relations for the Wounded Warrior Project.
While they rode as a group, the motorcyclists established a trust and camaraderie that carried over into the evening events.
"We had to build that trust quickly. But it started with the fact that we had all worn the (military) uniform, we had all been exposed to some kind of trauma, we had all shared the theme of PTSD and we all rode motorcycles," said Roberts, a Marine Corps veteran who was wounded in a 1992 helicopter crash off the coast of Somalia.
The Wounded Warrior Project executive says he has experienced the benefits of motorcycling in dealing with his own PTSD.
"Personally, I don't like a lot of medications," he said.
Roberts rode motorcycles when he was in the military. Severely injured in the helicopter crash, however, he didn't ride for a couple of years and thought that his motorcycling days were over.
"When I sold my bike, it destroyed me a little bit," he said.
Roberts bought a small motorcycle just to see if he could ride again. When he found that he could, he moved up to a bigger bike.
"In my case, it's extremely healing," he said about motorcycling.
Harley-Davidson often gets letters from veterans and active-duty military personnel thanking the company for producing motorcycles that are so important to them and for the support Harley has given them.
"I am in Harley-Davidson's debt and thank them from the bottom of my heart. They saved my life on more than one occasion," Steuber said.
It's not unusual for Harley employees to send cards and letters to troops overseas. Company executives say they also feel strongly about the issues that military personnel and veterans face.
"All of these issues tug at me personally, as a veteran and an employee," said Christian Walters, the U.S. managing director for Harley-Davidson and an Army aviation officer from 1992 to 2003.
Many veterans use their bikes and organized rides as a way to honor fallen comrades, those missing in action in war and prisoners of war. Nationwide they raise millions of dollars for charities and, locally, they contribute generously to organizations such as food pantries.
The DMZ Motorcycle Club, in Burlington, works closely with the Veterans Home in Union Grove.
"I can't over-stress the amount of camaraderie that's available through a military-based motorcycle club. It's just fantastic," said Ted Palmatier, an Army veteran with the DMZ Motorcycle Club.
For various reasons, some veterans who are motorcyclists don't get involved with groups.
"They enjoy the ride, the wind in their face, and the quiet time to think. But the Vietnam era was full of veterans with a 'I don't want to get close to somebody' attitude," Palmatier said.
Some veterans groups that aren't motorcycle-based haven't welcomed younger vets, according to Roberts from Kenosha.
"I did not walk into the VFW Post, that I am a member of now, for 10 years. I came back from the Gulf War totally unaccepted by the VFW. Some said it wasn't a real war ... all kinds of BS," Roberts said.
He immediately felt welcomed by the VFW motorcyclist group.
"It's really a brotherhood. We take care of each other," he said.
Some veterans turn to extreme sports, such as mountain climbing and kayaking, to experience a little of the adrenaline rush they had in the military and the sense of belonging to a community of like-minded people.
The transition to civilian life can be difficult, and combat trauma issues vary widely.
But interacting with other veterans and engaging in activities like motorcycling can be very helpful, said Paul Gasser, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences at Marquette University who has done PTSD research.
"I have heard a lot of stories like this," Gasser said.