Escape: See Americans First

Camp Patriot shows combat veterans the way home

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson

"I have no sense of self-preservation," he said, migraine ebbing. "That's why I'm good at EOD."

Tony made staff sergeant as a vehicle fueler before developing his tin ear. Discovery of an ear canal cyst led to brain surgery and a long recovery while awaiting medical retirement.

"I just take one day at a time," he said, looking around the table. "This is a good one."

Bender got himself blown out of a second-story Kosovo window, and now sports a gimpy clutch arm. Hashing out our ride route, he asked if we were cool with it.

"Don't look at me," I said. "I get lost going to the latrine."

Signing his waiver, Jon asked for the date, and then clarified his question: "What month?"

It felt like a family reunion: "Sick, lame, lazy and crazy, fall out to the rear!"

Kickstands up at 0800, we made steam for Glacier National Park. Bender wheelied his bagged BMW F800GS. His wife Melissa wrangled Camp Patriot's Dodge Ram, trading off with Bill Clark on their V-Strom 650. The Ft. Lewis troopers rolled their own, and I bimbled along on Bender's blue BMW R1200RT with Pretty Wife riding air guard behind the crew-served Nikon. Bender's impeccable preparation ensured no one had gear issues.

A good day riding through Montana beats a perfect day most anywhere else. We flew along Highway 2 between purple mountains' majesty to Kalispell, grabbed picnic grub and fueled up for Glacier.

North of Kalispell, subdivisions were delineated by mini-mall churches and meth treatment centers. A game-park sign proclaimed the gospel: "Your car is your cage."

Bender facilitated federal disabled park passes, granting us lifetime free admission to national parks. The ranger looked and saw not four gimps, but four motorcyclists. We waved.

Over a riverside picnic table, I proposed swapping my new H-D summer gloves for Tony's Second Infantry Division hoody. He said he'd think about it.

Gloves or not, he's a Harley loyalist. The Street Bob's first rider bought it showroom-new from Northwest Harley-Davidson in Olympia, Washington. When that soldier got orders to Iraq, Northwest bought his bike back at full retail, marked it down $5000 and sold it to Tony.

Less pristine, Jon's Hyosung had suffered an intersection tip-over at the hands of its mad-bomber owner. Jon's key fob, valve stem caps and the handle of his cane are all 8-balls. Maybe there's a Victory in his future.

Atop Logan Pass, 52 miles up Going to the Sun Road, we unzipped to let cool wind whip through our riding gear.

Jon fell out there. For the light-sensitive, aspiring 6646 feet into the Big Sky on a cloudless day is beautiful-but painful.

We had Camp Patriot's truck and willing hands. After playing together all day, working as a unit came naturally. No rider left behind!

By the time we rendezvoused at Kalispell's Blue Canyon Bistro, Jon was ready to disarm one of their infamous Chocolate Bombs.

I ordered bison prime rib. Tony spoke up, too, only to hear there was just one left. When I switched to ribs, Bender cracked, "Obviously, you were never an officer."

Our waitress returned to inform Tony they'd sold the last prime rib. For 10 bucks more, she could bring him bison tenderloin. Bill Clark and Mike Bender practically arm-wrestled each other for the privilege of upgrading him.

Obviously, they were never officers either.

In a day's riding, we'd transmogrified from reserved strangers into a delinquent band sharing stories, reprehensible jokes and desserts named after weapons.

On our last morning, we blasted up Highway 93 north past Whitefish, through the spooky histories of Lupfer, Olney, Stryker, Trego, Tobacco and Eureka to the high bridge vaulting Lake Koocanusa.

When we stopped for ice cream they were out of Tony's flavor. He smiled and shrugged: "It's still ice cream."

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