A handful of Austin, Texas, wrenches are doing more than stitching bikes together beneath the city's reaching pecan trees and black-winged grackles. Motorcycle Missions is working to give veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a place to reassemble themselves.

PTSD can stem from any trauma, in this case, defined as an event where an individual believes their life or the lives of others around them are in danger. The Department of Veterans Affairs says that 7 to 8 percent of Americans will develop post-traumatic stress at some point in their lives. Those numbers are higher in the armed forces.

Motorcycle Missions custom
Motorcycle Missions focuses on building show-winning bikes. They're machines with a purpose.Motorcyclist Staff

In 2015, Krystal Hess was busy splitting her hours between nursing, assembling custom bikes, and running her own powdercoating business in Austin. Texas boasts 15 active military bases, and she realized a good portion of her friends were veterans with motorcycles.

Hess knows what working on a bike can do for a person. She stumbled into motorcycling the hard way in 2012, left with a pile of tools and parts among the wreckage of a relationship. She could have thrown it all in a dumpster or written an ad and let some vulture fill his pickup to the brim. She didn’t. Instead, she started asking questions.

Model 18 Big Twin Boardtrack
Builds begin as sketches, then progress to CAD drawings before being realized in steel.Motorcyclist Staff

“It was a nightmare,” she says. “I was just riding back and forth through Austin going from this bike shop to that bike shop, asking for help. I didn’t know shit.”

It led to a chance meeting with a shop owner who offered her a deal: help assemble the pieces of a Suzuki Hayabusa in exchange for half the proceeds when the bike eventually sold. It was her first motorcycle and her first project.

Motorcycle Missions volunteers
Motorcycle Missions runs on the generosity of talented volunteers like Chris Moos (center) of Misfit Industries and David Roy of Voodoo Vintage.Motorcyclist Staff

There’s a thing called ‘I got your six’ that a lot of veterans say. There are a lot of those tattoos tattooed everywhere on people, but it’s true. Just let them know that you’ve got their back if they need it. Motorcycles are our way of giving them an outlet so that those days don’t come. So that they don’t need to make those phone calls. They go home feeling good about themselves; they go home feeling accomplished.

- Krystal Hess

“It wasn’t the riding,” she says. “It was the working on the bike and challenging myself and the desire to learn that were most therapeutic for me. And the camaraderie around motorcycle riding and events.”

Motorcycle Missions dog
Motorcycle Missions is built around a single idea: that there's nothing a community can't heal.Motorcyclist Staff

After the Hayabusa, Hess kept putting bikes together. There were shows and awards, and she found herself with a contact list full of builders, fabricators, and suppliers.

“Why not use this for good and share my experience with people who wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity?” Hess recalls. That simple notion became Motorcycle Missions, beginning with a motocross camp for a handful of vets in 2016. From there, it blossomed into bike builds and welding instruction.

Krystal Hess
Krystal Hess and the team at Motorcycle Missions began their latest build this past February.Motorcyclist Staff

“We’re not just slapping a bike together,” Hess says. “We’re building a bike that’s going to shows; it’s going to be high profile. That’s the exciting part of it. It gives them their smile back, you know?”

Motorcycle Missions group photo
From sketch to reality: the Big Twin Boardtrack project in the flesh with the Motorcycle Missions team.Motorcyclist Staff

We do know. It’s more than an opportunity to stand around in a garage. It’s the chance to fall out of your own head for a moment, to struggle against a challenge and bask in the glow of overcoming it. It is the miracle of the motorcycle.

Hess says the crew will start its third build this February, but nothing about Motorcycle Missions’ future is certain. It’s held together with her enthusiasm and a small army of generous volunteers donating expertise, shop space, and materials. For now, it’s enough to keep moving, to keep helping those who have spent their lives helping the rest of us.