06 October 2015

A Thoroughfare for Freedom: The 2015 Road Warrior Ride

In the crisp dawn air on June 6th, 2015, I found myself gearing up for another mission. I checked and rechecked my gear. Was everything strapped down? Could I easily reach and manipulate the controls? I went over the plan with the guy in charge and shared that plan with the guy following me. After a short delay, our convoy began to move out, alert and excited for the challenge ahead.

Far from the dangers of a combat zone, our team was setting out to navigate the country roads of New England. Day Two of the 2015 Road Warrior Ride, a cross-country motorcycle trip for severely wounded veterans, began with the rumble of 20 Can-Am Spyders. My colleague and fellow veteran, Rob Foster, and I took up the rear on our cruisers.  Together we formed a living chain that stretched for hundreds of feet like the backbone of a mythological dragon, which is exactly how some of the other motorists treated us along the way.

As the Director of Veteran and Military Services at Northeastern University, I have enjoyed limitless backing in my support of servicemembers and veterans, both on and off campus. My leadership encourages me to be a force for good in the community. Despite the somewhat unorthodox nature of this particular venture, they didn’t balk when I pitched the idea of supporting a cross-country motorcycle trip. Instead, they sent us off to represent our institution and the commitment we have for veterans. Both of us were beyond honored to go.

The Road Warrior Foundation is the brainchild of LtCol (Select) Craig Anders and Air Force veteran Steve Berger. They saw a gap in the services provided to injured veterans, one they decided to fill using their own brand of “adventure therapy.” Riding cross-country poses a challenge of endurance to anyone, injured or not, and it was exactly that challenge these eight wounded veterans had sought out; they relished the opportunity to prove that limitations are self-imposed. Adapt and overcome!

The ride to New York that day took around nine hours. This was one of the longer days of riding I had done since I started six years ago. Rob had learned how to ride only days before, so this was a true baptism by fire for him. That was especially true as the Can-Ams went into tight curves at 60mph, assured by their high-tech traction and stability controls. For those of us with only two wheels, it was scary at times. I spent a good portion of the ride with my heart in my throat which, if you’re wondering, is not where God put it.

When not busy contemplating my death or dismemberment, I was having the time of my life. I was witness to a whole group of people discovering a love of the open road. There is a flavor of life not tasted by those in cars or trucks. With no cage to protect you, you place your trust in nature and the road stretched out before you. In return, both open themselves to you and reveal a side unseen by most.

The center line divides your thoughts. The mountains stand like an ancient chorus poised in grandeur to sing their verses of solitude. The wise, old hills listen as your silent heart pours out its contents. The details of your life float away as dandelions scattered by the wind to be swallowed by rolling, emerald pastures. And as you ride through a countryside that exudes life, you can’t help but to get some on you.

It is precisely this sense of freedom and peace that draws so many into the saddle. Two-wheeled therapy has provided decades of treatment to veterans. Unfortunately, regular cruisers require the use of one’s feet/legs in order to shift gears, brake, and stabilize the vehicle at stops. The Can-Am Spyder, however, provides an automatic engine, hand brakes, and a third wheel. The generosity of Can-Am’s parent company BRP to donate the vehicles made this ride possible for veterans who had lost the use of one or both legs. For the lone female veteran on the ride, who had lost her vision from a virus contracted in Iraq, the Spyder allowed her to sit back and relax with a friend at the controls.

Our destination that day was Bear Mountain State Park, and our group arrived to a performance from the Nassau County Firefighters’ Pipes and Drums playing America the Beautiful. Their misty-eyed drum major stood at attention and held a salute as each one of us rolled past. It was at Bear Mountain over a barbeque spread and cold beverages that we really started getting to know the veterans we were there to support. They were family men, artists, athletes, and business leaders. There was Patrick, the heartthrob of the group, with his quick wit and southern drawl. Chewy, who looked like a brooding Mexican-American with a long, dark beard, was instead a warm and gentle soul with an inviting laugh. Big Mike would stand at six feet-eleven inches if he weren’t confined to a wheel chair; he slung jokes like it was his job. Though she can no longer see it, I hope Kathy never forgets what her beautiful smile looks like. Michael P. was unassuming and quiet despite being an accomplished adaptive sport athlete and non-profit entrepreneur. These and the other veterans each added their unique spice to the mix, and it soon felt a lot like a family barbeque.

We joined the Road Warriors again days later in Asheville, North Carolina and hosted a reception for them at the Twin Leaf Brewery. Locals had heard about the ride on the radio and came out to wave large American flags and cheer at their arrival. One more random city in America was able to show its gratitude for their service, and Northeastern University was proud to make it possible in yet another state.

That was our final evening with the 2015 Road Warriors. It lasted well into the night, and the conversations grew more descriptive and trusting. Injuries were explained. Recovery challenges were detailed. Such raw honesty was familiar from my own time in the service, and I missed it. In many ways, it was refreshing. Among civilians, we have to mind what we say and how we say it. There are things we shouldn’t say and things we simply cannot. Talking with Road Warriors like Big Mike brought me back to a time when that wasn’t a concern. We were all brothers, and we could tell each other anything.

Rob and I will never forget our time out on the road with this awesome group of veterans. There are so many ways to heal, and adventure therapy provides a fantastic alternative to the over-medication that’s grown all too common.  We certainly hope that more organizations will see the value in supporting the Road Warrior Foundation as NU has done.  Those who serve inevitably change, and we owe them the opportunity to rediscover themselves as they explore the great country they fought to defend.

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  1. It is definitely this feeling of flexibility and peace that draws such a variety of into the seat. Two-wheeled treatment has given many years of treatment to veterans. Tragically, normal cruisers require the utilization of one's feet/legs keeping in mind the end goal to change gears, brake, and balance out the vehicle at stops. The Can-Am Spyder, in any case, gives a programmed motor, hand brakes, and an awkward extra person wheel.
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