Behind Bars - What Kills Us

Up To Speed

Listen up, combat vets. Stop using my favorite sport to decimate my only respectable peer group.

Going into standby is scary. Since we didn't find an enemy bad enough to put us down, sometimes we tickle the Reaper just for giggles. As my former gunner, a Suzuki GSX-R750 rider, said the other night, "It's like, what're ya' gonna do, kill me?"


Fighting abroad, we were the best in the world. Riding at home, we pretty much suck. Fatality percentages are down among riders under 30-except among military riders, who are setting records.

The Joint Service Safety Council currently identifies motorcycling as its leading non-combat concern, because while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates annual U.S. rider fatalities around 7.5 per 10,000, the Marine Corps rate runs almost 10 in 10,000. In 2008, America lost more Marines to motorcycle wrecks than to hajji action.

If you're an early-20s male rider in grade E-4 or E-5 within six months of your redeployment, triple your life insurance right now. According to the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center safety blog, you're in pole position for the Pearly Gates TT.

An old cadence runs like this: If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home. Pin my medals upon my chest. Tell my mama I did my best!

There are no medals for sliding under an SUV. Pending a line-of-duty investigation, you could potentially be denied medical benefits or even your death gratuity if you weren't properly trained and equipped. Will they tell your mama you did your best, or just slip a hospital bill into her folded flag?

Big Boy Rules apply. Walk into a motorcycle dealership with a fistful of folding-green freedom and the salesman won't talk you down from that Hayabusa or Streetfighter. His job is to sell bikes, not keep you out of trouble.

The services have big dough invested in reducing off-duty accidents. MSF Basic Rider Courses are required and are free for active duty, so go sign up. Already know it all? Take it to the next level. Some army posts and all naval bases now require the MSF Military Sportbike Rider Course (see Street Savvy, page 94) before riding a sportbike. And you do want to ride a sportbike, even if you don't know it yet.

CONUS army bases host motorcycle safety rallies, such as Ft. Hood's Phantom Thunder, and they've adopted the air force's rider-mentoring program. Uncle Sugar even springs for virtual reality with a Honda SMARTrainer at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar.

What about prior-service road casualties? Nobody tracks the number of skitchy vets who pop smoke on bikes. Freshly released from General Order Number One with no chain of command to shove the cork back in the bottle, we don't need no stinkin' safety course. We got situational awareness! And fine, fast bikes...

To crib from Lance Armstrong, it's not about the bike. What kind of rider are you? What kind of man are you?

Something different than you were before you got shot at, blown up, mortared, fragged. Traumatic brain injuries and PTSD permanently change people. Do you lose your way sometimes, or your temper a lot? Don't work it out at 130 mph on the causeway. Go see a VA counselor and get in touch with your inner amygdala.

I'm no holier than thou. Every stupid thing you could do on a motorcycle, I've probably done twice: failed to PMCS, ridden like a jackass, gone "just around the block" for a few hours with no gear.

I've ridden twisted, too. I didn't care what happened and I liked not caring. I just rode and rode, so fast through the night that it all dropped away behind me. I couldn't hurt anyone but myself so it was okay, right?

Wrong. That is not the way home. Someone I care for very much asked me not to do that anymore; reminded me that I would surely hurt my people and maybe injure someone else's. Someone cares for you, too-maybe someone you haven't met yet.

Do your need for speed right at a racetrack. Don't use public roads to show everybody what a bad motor scooter you can be. We already know what a badass you are. Thank you for being that when you were called. Thank you for not being that around my family, and for not using my favorite sport to take yourself out.

When the best of Americans smear themselves into wet, red stripes, it doesn't just embarrass us. It defeats us. So vets, I'm asking you to tighten up your shot group and stay around for a good, long ride.

Or you could just go out in a bright, white bang. That may sound cleaner than slow death surrounded by peace-fattened civilians, but that "slow death" you'reworried about? It's called "life."

You've earned yours.