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Common Tread

Returning from war: How motorcycles made me whole again

Nov 11, 2020

In the fall of 2007, I returned home from an all-expenses-paid vacation to Mesopotamia. It was my second extended stay in the sandbox, and after spending 15 months with 90-plus cavalrymen, I found myself sitting mostly alone, aside from my wife and two dogs, in what felt like the biggest empty house.

You see, my return home wasn't just returning from a war zone. It was also the end of more than six years of Army life. I was unquestionably glad to be home and presumably “out of harm’s way,” but there was no question I was trying to ascertain my purpose in life.

The typical Army day is structured: physical training before dawn, three square meals and a very clear set of expectations. Training is intense because life-or-death situations are a real possibility. Honorable discharge in the mail, I headed back to a job I hated at the local cable company, leaving a potentially life-threatening work environment for a “kinder, gentler” corporate employer. I did not acclimate well to civilian life.

Drew on duty in Iraq
Army life means structure and discipline because the consequences can be grave. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to difficulties reacclimating to civilian life. Photo by Daniel Proctor.

I would describe myself of that time as a “functional recluse.” I put in my 40 hours on the job, but shied away from most public engagements, especially if crowds were involved, or worse, I drank heavily to cope. Needless to say, this didn’t help maintain relationships and certainly put a lot of stress on my marriage.

Time went by. I talked to some people... and then my wife bought me a motorcycle.

Triumph Scrambler by the river
This Triumph Scrambler, affectionately known as Rosie, took me down many byways and, unexpectedly, down the path to healing. Photo by Drew Faulkner.

A motorcycle pulls me out of the shell

I still hated the grocery store. I still drove angry on the highway, and I unquestionably avoided social gatherings. The feeling of “the enemy is everywhere” was still alive, but manageable. Then the strangest thing happened.

I'm topping off the tank at the gas station. Unsolicited, an old greybeard dude walks up to talk to me.

“Hey, man, is that a Triumph?!”

Normally, talking to strangers meant being guarded for a potential threat. But I was really proud of this shiny new bike and ready to tell everyone who would listen about how awesome motorcycles are, especially my new Triumph. Just like that, a previously disturbing situation turned into a positive experience. And I didn’t even notice it was happening.

That happened over and over and it happened almost everywhere. I made jokes about “The Triumph Effect,” how a Triumph badge brings people out of the woodwork to tell you about their 1960s Bonneville. What I didn’t realize is that it had started to reshape my pre-programmed response to social interaction and dealing with strangers. And it didn’t stop there.

on the road in small towns
Rosie and I explored small towns, where ice cream and diner therapy slowly pulled me out of my reluctance to engage with society. Photo by Drew Faulkner.

Addictions: Some are better than others

It’s a sensitive topic. I’m addicted to food, video games and probably a host of other things. Various studies show that returning veterans struggle with addiction because of their overseas experiences. Once the mind has become conditioned for a singular focus on one task, one goal (survival), it's difficult to quell that sense of urgency.

Certainly, there are stereotypes about veterans battling negative addictions like alcohol, but many become addicted to functional activities, like their jobs (one form of addiction that is less likely to be criticized). I discovered I was addicted to competition. I prefer to call this “passion,” but when a passion for, let’s say ice hockey, means turning a friendly pick-up game into a combative situation, the maladaptive traits of addiction become clear.

More relationships scarred, I found myself spending more time hiking in the woods and even more time riding the motorcycle. I wanted to ride everywhere, at every opportunity, regardless of what I needed to take with me or how silly the conditions were. This, too, didn’t exactly help my relationship with my wife. It certainly didn’t help my finances. I told people that riding was the closest I'd ever get to being a fighter pilot. While that's true, what I didn't realize is that riding a motorcycle had given birth to some interesting side effects.

riding in seven degrees Fahrenheit
I turned riding into a competition, testing myself to see how many days in a row I could ride and how cold I would go. Photo by Drew Faulkner.

To feed the beast, I looked for any excuse to ride. I rapidly found myself falling in love with Mom & Pop joints hidden in one-stop-sign villages in rural Ohio and Kentucky. Sitting alone at the table, I found myself talking to the owners about their restaurant, the food, and local landmarks. Lured out of the house by addiction, there I was, wandering the countryside, willingly engaging with complete strangers, disarmed by ice cream, home cooking, and motorcycles.

Pavement took me places, but typically demanded more time to satisfy the craving. Despite harsh winter conditions, the mind, constantly searching for an enemy to battle, soon found a greater opportunity for adversity by leaving the pavement to battle nature in its rawest form. Still unaware of the changes happening during social engagements, I found myself even more fixated on off-road riding than I ever had been with pavement. A blessing in disguise, this may have been the greatest thing that ever happened to me.

Off-road riding meant merging my undying love of the forest with my newfound two-wheeled passion. Riding a big bike on dirt was incredibly challenging. As I’ve said elsewhere, boredom with the conditions is easily cured by the abrupt twist of the throttle. Unfortunately, wrestling a 500-pound pig limited the extent to which I could venture into the woods. A lighter bike remedied that issue, but still didn’t completely satisfy the relentless competitive animal within.

riding off-road
Adding a Honda CRF250L allowed me to penetrate deeper into the forest while simultaneously ratcheting up the difficulty. Photo by Kyle Terry.

Where competition meets healing

“…10 seconds!”

A voice rang out over the loudspeaker. My heart was pounding, stomach fluttering with anticipation, and my hands nearly shaking. The flagman waved the green flag, I mashed the starter button and nervously chased a line of guys through the first corner and into the woods. Through the Appalachian foothills of northern Kentucky, I took a savage beating at the hands of nature, unlike any I’d faced since accepting my discharge.

On the advice of a good friend, mostly rehabilitated, at 36 I decided to give off-road racing a try. Ten years ago I would never have believed you if you said this is what I do “for fun” today. But it’s not just been fun, it’s also been the capstone of an unorthodox healing process. I’m finally old enough to realize I am refueled by nature and motivated by competition.

off-road racing
My desire for competition led to off-road racing. In the end, I found the real competition was from the environment. I had to overcome the conditions to finish the race. Photo by Stacy Mundy.
The strangest thing happens on the track on Sundays. When guys pass me, a lot of them thank me for letting them by (most are obviously faster than me). Practicing in the woods on weeknights and lining up on the grid on Sundays, I suddenly realized, no matter how competitive I may be against another rider, I'm always battling the terrain, just to finish the next lap. When it rains and the track gets gnarly, it only solidifies resolve. I had no idea why… and then I realized: Nature is the ultimate adversary, a competitor that will always rise to the occasion, and most importantly, a “safe” enemy to work out my demons with.

Sunday night, when I close the door on the shed, I thank nature for providing the battleground. On Instagram, I message back and forth with fellow competitors, thanking them for putting up an awesome fight, regardless of who finished first. And, to whoever or whatever is responsible for this life we live, I give thanks for the journey from pain to salvation.

Motorcycles made all of this possible. They didn’t do it alone. Motorcycles alone are no substitute for therapy. However, it takes people to fix people, and motorcycles brings those people together and nature sets the meeting.

I wrote this because I know I'm not alone. There's a trope about getting your "wind therapy," another about "You'll never see a motorcycle parked outside a psychologist's office." Again, motorcycles are no replacement for an appropriate rehabilitation program. However, the community and the experiences built around motorcycles can enhance the foundations built by therapy.

This isn't limited to veterans. I'm sure that all who have suffered trauma have the potential to experience unseen benefits from riding. Maybe, like me, you're one of the ones who already has.