All too often these days each of us knows a person struggling from the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to PTSD United, “An estimated 8% of Americans (24.4 million people) have PTSD at any given time, equal to the total population of Texas.” The long-term effects can be devastating to both the individual and family.
Two groups especially affected by PTSD are military veterans and first responders due to the increased exposure of both to traumatic situations. After learning about PTSD and the incredible toll it was taking on military veterans and first responders, Tom Larson founded Motorcycle Relief Project. Although not a veteran himself, Tom had been through treatment for trauma in his own life and became aware of how therapeutic it is to ride a motorcycle when he needed to relax and blow off some steam. He couldn’t help but think that taking veterans with PTSD and other injuries on motorcycle adventure trips could be a great way to help them decompress, learn some tools for managing stress, and connect with other veterans with whom they may have something in common. The result is Motorcycle Relief Project (MRP).
Curious to learn more about this project, we reached out to Tom for a more in-depth look at MRP.
Tucker Powersports: Tom, we appreciate you helping us learn more about Motorcycle Relief Project. Tell us a little more about how you started the program and why did you choose to focus specifically on military veterans and first responders?
Tom Larson: I’ve spent a lot of time in a counselor’s office and psychiatrist’s office working on my own issues, although my stuff doesn’t come from being in the military. At one point my counselor suggested that I could possibly benefit from doing a treatment called EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] that can be helpful for PTSD, and that was the first time I’d ever even thought of my own challenges being a form of PTSD. I started reading up on PTSD just to learn more about it, and that’s how I first became aware of how many veterans struggle with it and how difficult it is for many of them to deal with life in the civilian world. The first responders part came after having several veterans on our rides who now work as first responders, and some of them telling me that their PTSD issues are more from working as first responders than from serving in the military.
TP: Having experienced trauma yourself, you know all too well the devastating effects PTSD can have on the individual and his or her family. What made you choose adventure motorcycle riding as a form of therapy for PTSD?
TL: I noticed that when I got on my bike and rode, all the other noise in my head seemed to subside for a while. One day I was sitting in the waiting room of my dentist’s office reading a motorcycle magazine, and I saw an amazing photo of guys riding ADV bikes through the woods and looking like they were having the time of their life. That’s when the light bulb first came on. I thought, “What if we could use the excitement of riding ADV bikes through the backcountry as a lure to bring guys together who might not sign up for other forms of therapy?” That was the basic concept that first came to me. I had no idea if it would work or not. Now that we’ve had over 150 veterans and first responders go through our program, I’m getting lots of feedback that it’s making a profound impact in many of their lives.
TP: What is it about riding motorcycles that makes them so therapeutic for those suffering from PTSD?
TL: I asked a Marine named Abel that same question on one of our rides. I’m paraphrasing, but Abel’s answer was essentially that “MRP offers a lot of the same things that veterans loved about being in the military. There’s a sense of adventure and being a badass. There’s a camaraderie that forms from coming together as a team with a common purpose. There’s also a sense of adrenaline and risk from doing a dangerous sport like riding motorcycles in the backcountry. So you have all these elements that you miss from being in the military, only without people shooting at you! You get to enjoy some of the same positive stuff that came along with your time in the service but without the downside of having to always be on alert because people are intentionally trying to kill you. You can actually let your guard down while at the same time challenging yourself, and that’s a big part of why MRP works.” The other part of why our program works is what we do in the evenings. After eating dinner together and talking about the adventures and misadventures of the day, we move into the living room for our evening sessions. Participant after participant says that it’s in those sessions where the real transformation happens. We teach coping skills in those sessions as well as some new concepts or ways of looking at things that most participants haven’t come across before. We then have a discussion about the material and give participants an opportunity to get real about their struggles without having to worry about people judging them or thinking they’re crazy, broken or dangerous. Riding together during the day is therapeutic in and of itself, but it’s in the evening workshops where participants have their breakthroughs and their aha moments.
TP: How is each MRP ride organized and where do they take place?
TL: We’re based in Colorado and do rides there from June-September. The rest of the year we trailer bikes to a location in Arizona, New Mexico or California. Participants must get themselves to the city where the ride is based, but once they arrive, we take care of everything including food, lodging, bikes, gear, etc. Our groups are usually 12 people total, including eight participants and four staff/volunteers. We have a professional dirt riding instructor along on every ride to teach participants how to ride big ADV bikes on dirt. We also have a support truck follow us everywhere we ride, so we can throw food and water and extra gear in the truck. The truck also carries tools for minor trailside repairs and serves as a transport vehicle for disabled bikes or the occasional ride to the ER that is sometimes necessary when someone gets a little too cocky or aggressive and wipes out and gets hurt. Thankfully we’ve only had two participants break bones on our rides, and – knock on wood – nothing worse than that so far.
TP: Are there separate rides for veterans and first responders or do they ride together?
TL: We just did our inaugural ride for first responders in September, and we learned that while both groups struggle with some of the same things related to PTSD, depression, and anxiety, there are also some important differences. First responders – and it doesn’t matter if they’re police, firefighters or EMS – have their own language of acronyms and terms that they use. Also, while many veterans can point to a specific event or events that is the root of their PTSD, first responders tend to have more of a cumulative effect of dealing with the same things day after day after day. As one firefighter put it, every day you’re showing up to try and help someone who is having the worst day of their life. If cops, firefighters or EMS have to show up, you know someone is having a pretty bad day. Over time this takes a toll on the people who serve the public in first responder jobs.
TP: What is the end goal of Motorcycle Relief Project and what do you hope each participant walks away with?
TL: Our objective is to provide participants with an opportunity to decompress, get out of a rut or a dark place, connect with peers who can relate to what they’re struggling with, and learn some helpful coping skills for dealing with their issues and moving in a more positive direction in life. This manifests itself differently with different participants. We’ve had many who decided to get healthy and lose weight, including at least half a dozen who’ve lost more than 50 pounds each. We’ve had others find the insight and strength on our rides to kick addictions to prescription narcotics, even though that’s not part of our program. We’ve had several who’ve said that the program literally saved their lives, as they’d given up hope and were ready to cash out on life before coming on the ride. I’d say the impact we hear about the most from participants is simply an improved ability to get along with the people in their lives they care about the most, be it their spouses, kids, parents, bosses, etc.
TP: Is there an approval process for a veteran or first responder to be chosen to participate in an MRP ride?
TL: Applicants can apply online at our website, www.motorelief.org. We have a two-part application process that’s followed by a 30-minute phone interview with the candidates we’re thinking of inviting to participate. We receive more applications than we can accommodate, so we have key alumni (past participants) review the applications and choose the applicants who we think would benefit the most from our program. We don’t want participants who are just looking for a five-day motorcycle adventure. We’re looking for participants who can admit that they’re struggling or in a dark place and who are ready to seek help and try and work on some of their issues.
TP: How many have gone on MRP rides since the program started in 2014?
TL: We’ve now completed 23 Relief Rides and had 156 veterans and first responders go through our program. Relief Ride #24 starts in Arizona on Sunday night!
TP: Tom we appreciate what you and the MRP organization are doing for those suffering from PTSD. We’re honored to help support your efforts. If there is anything else you want to share with those out there, go right ahead. Thanks, Tom!
TL: We’re thrilled to partner with Tucker to serve those who have served or are still serving our country and our communities. We’re not a huge organization with a whole department of people dedicated to fundraising. Rather, we’re still a very small, grass-roots organization with only two paid employees. Everything else is accomplished with volunteers who first went through our program as participants. Obviously, there’s significant cost and complexity that goes with maintaining and operating a fleet of ADV bikes and putting on five-day rides. We can’t afford advertising or celebrity spokespeople to help us raise money, and even if we could, that’s not really our style anyway. So the opportunity to partner with an industry powerhouse like Tucker is huge for us in terms of helping us spread the word and raise money to be able to do what we do. Thank you!
If you live in the Denver, Colorado area, consider attending the 2018 Motorcycle Relief Project annual fundraiser on Saturday, December 1st at 6pm. The location for the fundraiser is Performance Cycle of Colorado, 7375 S Fulton St. Centennial, CO 80112. More info: www.motorelief.org/2018-fundraiser.
More Info about Motorcycle Relief Project
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