Education and Transition

How motorcycling eases a veteran’s troubled spirit

Jonathan Haney was blown off his feet when the rocket landed a dozen yards away from him.

The blast injured several other soldiers at a military base in southern Afghanistan and gave Haney a traumatic brain injury, which contributed to his on-going post-traumatic stress.

For years he was closed off about his experiences in Afghanistan, resulting in feelings of loneliness and despair.

Like so many veterans, Haney mourned the loss of the close bonds forged with fellow soldiers and the life-and-death responsibilities of a military life that doesn’t resonate in the civilian world.

“Coming back here and going from being in charge of everything — accountability for your men and millions of dollars of equipment — to nothing, you feel worthless,” he said.

While looking for meaning and a way to heal, Haney discovered the restorative power of two-wheel therapy and learned to open up about the physical and emotional traumas he experienced as a soldier.

The ride that turned Haney’s life around was with the Motorcycle Relief Project, a nonprofit organization that brings together veterans and first responders for group rides where they not only tackle the open road, but the problems they face that come with highly stressful and dangerous occupations.

“While riding with MRP, I unloaded some stuff,” said Haney while recounting the emotional catharsis that came with sharing his experience with other veterans/riders. “I’ve never done group therapy before so it was all new to me.”

“I put some sh*t out there that I hadn’t even told my doctor. My wife even said: ‘You came back a better person.’”

Quinton Liebenberg (L), gives Stephanie Cutts, a Navy veteran from Greenville, S.C., motorcycle instruction in the Namib Desert during Uuzilo's first motorcycle expedition in July 2018, Swakopmund, Namibia. (Photo courtesy of Uuzilo)
‘Controlling danger’ — here’s why vets love motorcycles

The motorcycle community is a vibrant, welcoming group that shares a mutual love of bikes. It has been especially hospitable to veterans seeking healthy outlets to combat PTSD or other mental health symptoms related to their time in the military.

Haney also recalled listening to the stories of his fellow veterans after long days of riding through the mountains of Colorado with other MRP motorcyclists.

“I’d never done any riding like that in the mountains — just to get out there and clear your head was awesome,” said Haney. “I thought I was pretty f**ked up until I sat down with other people and heard their stories” he added, while recalling how the friendships he forged on his ride made him feel less alone in the civilian world.

MRP volunteer and Air Force veteran Mike Bobbitt agrees with Haney’s assessment of the restorative power of MRP rides. Bobbitt was on one of the first rides the group put together a few years ago. Now he regularly rides with the veteran motorcyclists. First responder MRP rides are separate from their military counterparts.

“While the issue may be the same, the camaraderie is different,” he said. MRP also does separate rides that are just for women.

Bobbitt noted that MRP’s outreach has grown in just a few short years. To date, the organization has taken more than 250 veteran and first responders on 34 rides in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California and Utah.

The group’s funding comes from private donors and sponsors like Twisted Throttle, BMW and others.

“The impact the program has had on riders in need of coping skills is immediate,” said Bobbitt.

“We’ve had multiple participants say it saved their lives because they were ready to throw in the towel on life before coming on one of our rides,” he said. “They’re going back home with new friends, new tools for coping, and new wills to live.”

Since his MRP ride last year, Haney has used the coping skills he learned to deal with his physical and emotional injuries and to be grateful for all that is good in his life.

“Some days I still need to pull myself up by my own bootstraps and go about my day,” he said. “But then I remember: some folks don’t have it as good as I do.”

He also has a renewed sense of community, something service members often miss when they take off the uniform. “With MRP, I now have more people to reach out to.”

This story was produced in cooperation with One Down Media, a motorcycle storytelling outlet.

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