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."

"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."

On the far side of the lake, the road is choked by trees so low we could smack their lichen-limned boughs. Buttered with cold patch and peppered by rock slides, the road nuzzling Koocanusa's anfractuous edge will give any fast rider the grinning cold sweats. Two shaky thumbs up!

At Blackburn's River Bend, a fishing resort and roadhouse offering solid grub and longstanding support for Camp Patriot's "Fishing with Heroes" program, our apple-cheeked waitress was the only one surprised when Tony ordered the one sold-out item on their menu. After dessert, Tony swapped his 2ID sweater for my Harley gloves.

"I can get another hoody," he smiled. "I want those gloves."

It was his turn.

Crossing the Kootenai River below Libby Dam, we eased onto Montana 37 and followed the river into Libby, stopping at Kootenai Falls.

We were nearly mission-complete. At Libby, the Warrior Transition boys would break off and RTB. Pretty Wife and I would exfil at oh-dark-30; Camp Patriot would welcome more dented veterans; Adventure Motorcycle would facilitate another escapade somewhere in Montana.

And after that? As Jon put it, "Once you've walked around in 130-degree heat waiting for some douche bag to blow you up, life's pretty boring after that."

Maybe. Bender and Clark found their way in this slowed-up, stateside world. Tony and Jon will, too.

They have motorcycles, time and riding buddies. On a good day in Montana, maybe that's all you really need.

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