2018 Veterans Charity Ride As Motorcycle Therapy | Motorcyclist
Jenny Linquist

2018 Veterans Charity Ride As Motorcycle Therapy

Searching for solace on the road to Sturgis

The day I left active service was one of the hardest of my life. A bored clerk handed me my discharge papers, and I went from being a leader, a Marine, and a warrior, to Paul. The military machine wouldn’t stop when I left. The people I cared about were still active and had work to do, but my purpose was gone. I would never be Capt. Harper again, and when that realization sank in, it left me sobbing so hard that I couldn’t finish the drive home. I pulled over and cried in full uniform. It doesn’t matter if your discharge was medically required or signed by your own hand, that day sucks.

Out of everything I experienced while serving, that day bothered me the most. I had never told that to anyone. Not my mother or sister. Not my girlfriend or buddies from college. I could never find the courage, but I heard the words spilling out of my mouth and into a hotel conference room in Moab, Utah. Looking around, I saw heads nodding in agreement. The people there understood that day. They knew it, because they’d lived it, these people who, five days ago, were complete strangers congregating at a Las Vegas hotel, gearing up for the 2018 Veterans Charity Ride.

veterans saluting

VCR riders connecting with local American veterans through commonality and mutual respect as we depart the Veteran's Plaza in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Jenny Linquist

Out of everything I experienced while serving, that day bothered me the most. I had never told that to anyone. Not my mother or sister. Not my girlfriend or buddies from college. I could never find the courage, but I heard the words spilling out of my mouth and into a hotel conference room in Moab, Utah. Looking around, I saw heads nodding in agreement. The people there understood that day. They knew it, because they’d lived it, these people who, five days ago, were complete strangers congregating at a Las Vegas hotel, gearing up for the 2018 Veterans Charity Ride.

Dave Frey started the VCR in 2015 as a way to help veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contend with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, and other physical or psychological issues. A veteran and a rider himself, he knew it could be as simple as putting men and women on bikes, leading them on incredible rides, and fostering an atmosphere of trust, contemplation, and camaraderie. He calls it motorcycle therapy.

Veterans can smell bullshit a mile away. It is one of the many gifts that come from working so closely with the federal government for so long, and why so many well-meaning doctors and psychologists struggle to help veterans address their issues. But where medication and group therapy focus on the damage veterans have sustained, the VCR provides an experience that teaches them how to continue living. No part of Frey is bullshit.

veterans ride 2018

Left: A generous breakfast provided by American Legion Post #4 in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Right: Riding in formation on the perfectly winding Highway 385 through the Black Hills National Forest.

Jenny Linquist

“We’re only guaranteed the very next moment,” he says. “We’re providing the circumstances to learn that you can seek to fill that next moment with a beautiful experience, rather than using it to refocus on ugly events you had to experience in your past.”

Still, watching the other riders mill around the first day, you could sense the hesitation, everyone with their guard up, their interactions brief. We started with introductions. I dryly repeated my service record, getting so far as, “I was an infantry officer in the Marine Corps for…” before someone shouted, “Go Navy!” from across the room. I caught a wry smile from a mischievous member of the VCR team. In the service, we rarely got through a few sentences without busting each other’s balls. It was a welcome indication that this was not just another group therapy session.

The guy with the mouth was Ritchie “Two Chairs” Neider. A nine-year Army veteran, Ritchie was injured in Operation Iraqi Freedom and lost the use of both legs. He took one look at a lawyer’s billboard plastered around Las Vegas and laughed.

veterans motorcycle ride with flag

Riding in formation surrounding on Highway 385 just outside of Deadwood, South Dakota.

Jenny Linquist

“We could fund this whole thing pretty easily if we just hid my chair and told them I was fine before we checked in.”

He’s also a VCR mentor, an incredible human being who lives by the mantra “your excuses are invalid.” He’s one of the many guys who have made the ride and now volunteer by driving support vehicles, piloting sidecars, or serving as road captains. Nothing stops him.

The VCR provides everything. From riding gear to the gleaming Indian Chieftains and Springfields that would ferry us from Las Vegas to Sturgis. My bike, a 2017 Springfield with a Stage 2 performance kit, was impressive but imposing. It has 550 pounds and 1,167cc on my daily ride. But it’s also a gorgeous, perfectly American thing, with acres of torque—the kind of machine that gets in your head and stays there.

We spent a day getting to know each other and our bikes. AMA legend Dale Kieffer talked us through safely bringing the big Indians down from speed. The mentors watched, throwing in a few well-placed cracks, and the group began to meld, giving each other a hard time and laughing it off. Satisfied that we weren’t going to splatter ourselves on the Nevada pavement, we set off on our first group ride.

american flags trailing motorcycles

This fittingly patriotic escort through Lusk, Wyoming, personifies the reception the VCR received on every leg of our journey.

Jenny Linquist

There’s so much of being on a motorcycle that corresponds to serving. Formation riding helps build group ­cohesion. You pass along hand and arm signals and know that your actions will have a direct impact on the riders around you, just as it did a world away. We took to it naturally, even though riding at speed offered no more relief from the Nevada heat than slow drills in the parking lot. It felt like someone had duct-taped a million hair dryers together and pointed them at our faces, but it felt good to be out of the city, good to be a part of a group. For the first time, I understood why all the old MCs started up after World War II and Vietnam. Before the guns and the drugs, it was just guys looking for what they left behind.

The intense heat followed us the next day. Nevada offered mostly flat, hot interstates until we headed into Utah, on to Zion National Park. We rode winding switchbacks that placed us on the lip of gorgeous plateaus, white and red stone spilling out in every direction, all of it looking like liquid stuck in time. Muttering wondrous expletives became a response to every bend in the road.

When we entered Moab, Utah, it was with a police escort. Frey wanted the route to wind its way through small towns.

“They’d have the time to stop long enough to really show their appreciation,” he said.

veterans ride shark sidecar

Ritchie “Two Chairs” Neider (center) found in his natural habitat, cracking jokes with anyone inside his max effective range at a Maverick gas station in Newcastle, Wyoming.

Jenny Linquist

After months of feeling set aside, out of place, or completely forgotten, we were rock stars. Traffic pulled over and let us by. Locals smiled and waved. We rode straight to a city park, where meticulously placed American flags lined the entrance to a grassy parade ground. It was stunning, but the thought of dropping the big Springfield on the wet grass mortified me. By some miracle, I kept the bike up and my dignity intact. There were presentations from the mayor, and bagpipe renditions of our respective service songs had us belting them out on stage. Hours had been poured into planning this. Days, maybe. These people didn’t know us. They could have done anything else with their time, but displaying their gratitude for our service was what they chose to do. It meant everything.

While we’d never faced the outright denigration of veterans from the Vietnam era, we’d never seen a whole town stop to say thank you either. We were all glad to be wearing sunglasses while on stage, the lot of us fighting back tears.

Related Video:

We were in Moab for three days, and it was home to our first group discussion. It wasn’t overbearing therapy with a psychologist who didn’t know the first thing about the service. It was just us and the mentors, which made opening my mouth more daunting. What could I say to this group? How could I put my struggles in perspective? Many veterans on the ride dealt with issues far greater in scope than my own. The internal dialog consumed me. I didn’t feel any better because others had it worse, but I realized that I’d been sitting around wallowing in my own bullshit when I could have been helping other veterans. It made me feel like the scumbag who didn’t belong in the room. Then a mentor mentioned getting discharged—a subject that was killing me inside—and my response came out before my better sense could stifle it.

veterans ride bike lineup

Left: Dave and Sue Frey leading the VCR on to Main Street in downtown Sturgis, South Dakota.
Right: Many of us found Main Street Sturgis more accessible on foot, given the tightly packed riders and wide array of sights to take in on every block.

Jenny Linquist

That’s why the VCR works. It gives veterans a chance to come together over an experience with people they trust. Rather than focusing on the hardships directly, the VCR lets us just live in the moment. It removes the barriers that prevent us from doing just that, letting us laugh until our sides hurt, soak in an eye-opening landscape, and achieve things together as a group. It’s a process that shows us the caliber of the people in the saddle next to us, lets us comfortably share what keeps us up at night. It all happened naturally, when we were ready.

“You’ll get more from two weeks on the ride than you will from two years at the VA because of the familiarity and comfort levels built by the shared experiences of the veterans around you,” Ritchie said.

We rode for four more days, working our way from Utah’s red deserts to South Dakota’s green prairie before landing in Sturgis, at last. It’s a place that can’t be summed up. The best and worst of everything motorcycling has to offer. We joked together about still not feeling comfortable in crowds and being out of luck in Sturgis. The VCR saw that coming. They set us up with a quiet cabin where we could isolate ourselves from the circus, crack a beer, and continue the progress we’d made through the week. The flat-track races, the bars, and the miraculous chaos of the Buffalo Chip was within reach when we wanted it to be, and far enough away when we didn’t.

Over two weeks I became closer with these men and women than with friends I’ve known for decades. We could intuit each other’s mental state with a glance and became comfortable offering an ear to listen. These riders were my unit now. I could share that day in the car on the side of the road, or anything else with them.

young veteran

This expression was plastered on my face for a full two weeks, all thanks to VCR and the magnificent humans who made it happen.

Jenny Linquist

The VCR is about getting to the point where you focus on doing anything, great or small, to contribute to healing another veteran on the ride. And it’s not only cathartic in that moment.

Ritchie never sets his phone to silent mode anymore. He has it nearby, ready to answer its ring at all hours, just in case a VCR rider might need to call him. That alone, simply knowing that there’s someone out there who understands and is willing to listen, may be the biggest help of all. For veterans, anything would help. Right now, we lose a veteran to suicide every 65 minutes. It’s an epidemic. More efforts like the VCR would help.

I sent my sister photos from the ride. Nothing special. Not the epic scenery or the all-American Springfield posed handsomely with its peers. Just groups of us, standing in front of the bikes.

“I haven’t seen that smile on your face in years,” she replied.

And it was true. Conquering all the tasks required to become a Marine Corps infantry officer was challenging. Building my adult life around an experience that fell short of my own expectations was soul-crushing. Leaving the Marine Corps two years ago and chasing the experience I wanted was short-sighted. It left me alone, with demons nobody around me understood, and dangerously isolated. Or so I thought. Ritchie, Frey, and the rest of the VCR showed me that none of us ride alone.


More Stories