There are beautiful rocks of all varieties on the bike trails at Prairie Chapel Ranch, former President George W. Bush’s home in Crawford, Texas. The shifting terrain and slopes challenge riders. The single track weaves between the trees with just the width of a bicycle so there is little room for error.
I have come to Crawford for three days from May 1 - 3 to report on the fourth annual Warrior 100K, a three-day bike ride to honor service members injured in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sixteen warriors, some of them veterans and some still on active duty, were selected to participate in the ride by their former commander-in-chief.
Singled out for their sacrifice and resilience these warriors are highly motivated to do their best, to help each other if they fall, to support the wounded. It’s almost as if this ride were a military operation.
President Bush’s compassion and commitment to his former troops is evident on his face and in his actions. The vets draw inspiration from him and he from them. Here in Crawford, teamwork, a refusal to quit, a strong desire to get back on the bike, are all metaphors for life.
“People get dealt a bad hand in life,” President Bush tells me in an interview. “In this case men and women volunteered to serve our country and got hurt. And rather than allowing their injuries to overwhelm them, they’ve overcome. And they’re riding mountain bikes, and they’re riding hard. They’re setting a good example and living life to the fullest.”
Out on the trail, Staff Sergeant Timothy Brown (retired), a triple amputee, rides his hand cycle with such skill that he has no trouble keeping up with many of the other riders.
Later in the ride, one veteran, who sustained a traumatic brain injury in combat, falls off his bike, hits his head and feels nauseous. But he gets right back on the bike.
The next day out on the trail he tells me he is feeling fine.
First Lieutenant Melissa Stockwell (retired), the first woman to lose a leg in combat in U.S. history in Iraq and now a paratriathlon world champion, rides her specially fitted bicycle with fortitude.
"We've all gone through traumatic instances -- some of us worse off than others,” she says, “But we're here to support each other, we're here to be out there on the trails together and at the end of the day It doesn't matter if you're missing an arm, missing a leg, we're out there to figure out what our new normal is going to be."
Achieving that new normal involves more than just a helping hand from the Department of Veterans Affairs. As President Bush says to me, “First of all, the VA system is full of people who care about our vets. Secondly, it’s a large bureaucracy. And sometimes with large bureaucracies it’s hard to create efficiencies. And so I understand the frustrations people have about the VA. The good news is that there is a group of private sector NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are helping to fill the void.
Wasatch Adaptive Sports, Hire Heroes USA, and the Green Beret Foundation are represented this year at the bike ride. The Green Beret Foundation is researching the use of hyperbaric oxygen to treat vets with traumatic brain injuries with promising results. In addition, Trek bicycles is a big supporter of the W100K bike ride. The company has provided all the warriors with free mountain bikes. The warriors are excited to learn that they will get to keep the bikes.
NGOs along with the Bush Institute are helping veterans retool their skills in an effort to find jobs.
"We are also helping bridge the language gap between employer and employee,” President Bush says. “For example, if a guy writes on his employment form, ‘I'm a sniper,’ well an employer’s going to say, ‘well I don’t need to hire a sniper.’ If he were to put on [his resume that] my skill set in the military required patience, discipline, practice, he (the employer) might say well ‘that’s the kind of person I want to hire.’”
“What we know is that vets feel connected when they can get a job, have meaningful employment,” former Secretary of Education and current President of the Bush Foundation, Margaret Spelling shares with me in an interview.
A primary focus of this year’s W100K bike ride is dealing with Posttraumatic Stress. President Bush and the Bush Institute have begun a Military Services Initiative which is attempting to help redefine and destigmatize this pervasive condition in a more productive direction. They’ve started by dropping the word “disorder” when talking about post-traumatic stress.
Colonel Miguel Howe (retired) is the director of the new initiative. “Posttraumatic Stress comes in a number of different ways but for our warriors it’s an injury of war,” Colonel Howe says. “But it is a treatable injury and it does not stop a successful and productive life as these men and women (at the bike ride) demonstrate.”
President Bush emphasizes that by referring to PTS as an injury rather than a disorder, it will help to eliminate stigma and the emphasize can be on treatment and employment. “If it’s called a disorder, somebody’s likely to say I don’t want to hire somebody with a disorder,” he says.
The weather on the ranch during the three days I’m here is cool and sunny. The spirit is upbeat and contagious.
I am privileged not just to report on this event but to bike with the warriors.
I ride on for miles, staying in line, inspired by the vets and their leader, not falling or tiring as much as I did last year.
Master Sergeant Chris Demars, Army National Guard, victim of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, comments on the lasting value of mountain biking. “It’s funny,” he says. “’Cause my wife, if she knows I’m agitated, she’ll tell me ‘why don’t you go for a bike ride?’ Because she knows how much the exercise helps with the emotion of the PTS.”
As the 3-day experience winds down several of the warriors tell me that they will take the inspiration of the ride home with them. I will do the same.
Marc Siegel MD is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008. His upcoming book concerns a mysterious viral outbreak.