Escape: See Americans First

Camp Patriot shows combat veterans the way home

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson

Every day I look to see what I can do, but I'm not good at that.

Crunching past the AAFES concessionaire on LSA Anaconda, I stepped into an air-conditioned hooch to thumb glossy brochures of Silverados, Mustangs and ... what's this? A silver Harley-Davidson Road King alongside a desolate Utah highway. The whitewalls and leather bags of fuel-injected freedom. Our own damned desert and something to run across it.

That brochure got folded into a faded MOLLE pouch and stowed between my lensatic moral compass and my Hollywood knife. I found other bikes to ride, but never decided what to do.

Camp Patriot founder Micah Clark is no such hand-wringer. A former FMF corpsman, Clark returned from a contractor gig in the 'Stan and settled into a 30-day R&R of fly fishing. Drawing line for a cast, Clark flashed on other vets returning from combat zones and received his mission in a Montana trout stream.

"Those guys should be out here," he thought.

Camp Patriot (www.camppatriot.org) is not a place but a plan, a purpose, an ideal. Camp Patriot produces hunting and fishing trips, Mt. Rainier summits and has even flown geriatric Army Air Force veterans in a restored WWII bomber.

"Everybody wants to do something for the young guys," he says. "We serve all vets. If we can create a paradigm shift in their lives-show them what they're still capable of-that's what we're about."

Camp Patriot's motto is "giving back to those who have given." With 50,000 members in the Purple Heart Association alone, and Camp Patriot serving 1000 vets per year, Clark predicts, "We won't run out of customers anytime soon."

Another get-it-done guy, Mike Bender redeployed from Kosovo to found Adventure Motorcycle LLC in Hall, Montana (www.adventuremotorcyclerental.com). Once established, Bender resolved to take disabled veterans riding through God's Country.

"I wanted to do something with my passion for motorcycles," Bender says, "and I wanted to do something for vets."

Both Bender and Clark get frustrated with traditional resources. Bender couldn't persuade the VA to line up eligible vets, and Clark lamented the VFW and American Legion keeping "one foot on the barstool and the other in the grave." Showing NCO initiative, they put our ride together anyway.

Start point was the Libby-area lodge of Clark's father Bill, a WWII Navy vet. There we awaited outriders from Task Force Phoenix, the wounded-warrior battalion at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Orange fingers stretched across the Big Sky by the time they boomed up the dry dirt road.

Medically disabled soldiers Jonathon and Anthony rode their bikes from western Washington to Libby over the Cascade, Bitterroot and Cabinet mountain ranges in one day, just to ride bikes some more. Either there is redemptive power in motorcycles or they're tougher than boot leather. Probably both.

Dismounting his Hyosung Avitar-a Korean-arranged marriage between a Harley V-Rod and a Suzuki SV650-Jon unlimbered his cane and wobbled over to mumble hello from behind Wiley X tactical shades.

Still straddling his black Harley-Davidson Street Bob, Tony lit up a smoke. Eventually dismounting, he introduced himself quietly while he scanned the darkening woods.

Supper topics started with MOS-the military equivalent of "what's your major?"-and proceeded inexorably toward justifying our cripple-dick existences.

Built short and strong with pale eyes and a devilish smile under his watch cap, Jon was an EOD chief. Explosive Ordnance Disposal is Hell's own fireworks show. Stateside, it requires meticulous professionalism conjoined to extraordinary risk tolerance. In Iraq, it requires Jon.

Reciting chemical formulae like baseball stats, Jon can improvise an explosive device in 3 minutes with stuff from your kitchen. Following multiple, cumulative traumatic brain injuries and "some other stuff" in his 20s, Jon describes himself as "a kid about to be retired."

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