Wounded Warriors heal their bodies and spirit with former commander-in-chief

Everyone who rides with former President George W. Bush in the annual Warrior 100K mountain bike ride has a personal story of overcoming adversity. Warriors and civilians alike train for months for the privilege of challenging the rocky switchback single-track trails on Bush’s Texas ranch. The ride has its own momentum, and each year it is more about the networks that are forming and the obstacles being overcome than the physical challenge of the ride itself. 

Out on the trail, the veterans ride in a kind of formation, banding together to assist someone who falls or has difficulty. Self-appointed supervisors, who must have been officers in war, bark out orders to start and stop. I am proud that my training allowed me to make it all the way up the challenging windy trail called Waterfall, over the narrow bridges and around the ridge in the lowest gear, and that I completed the two-day event on Sunday without falling.

But this ride wasn’t about me.

Many of the warriors who participate in the 100K carry incredible stories of courage and fortitude. President Bush said he was proud of retired Maj. Peter Way, who lost most of his right leg in Afghanistan and is transitioning from a hand cycle to a pedal-assisted e-bike with the help of a special leg prosthesis. He injured his back during the first day of this year’s ride, but he was back the next day, enduring intense pain, with the support of his brethren in Team 43, to ride at the conclusion of the event.

Research has shown that at least 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post-traumatic stress or depression, but less than half seek help.

The theme this year was the Bush Institute’s new Warrior Wellness Alliance, which approaches the debilitating invisible wounds of war (traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress) with the wisdom that no one knows how to help a vet like another vet.

As President Bush told me in an interview, “One, admit you got a problem. Pretty logical. If a vet kind of keeps it in inside, no one will understand what I think, no one can possibly relate to what I feel like, and doesn’t share, obviously that leads to negative consequences.

“Secondly, when you seek help, you and I can be … we can be sympathetic. But we can’t possibly relate to what it’s like to see a friend killed in combat. And yet there are others who can. And here in this group, people have progressed from severe depression, a severe case of PTS, to a moderate case. In some cases, a light case of it, and they can share with their pal what it took. And so it’s logical, and it works.”

The Warrior Wellness Alliance focuses on the roles of spouses and caregivers, and it connects peer-to-peer veteran networks with expert health care providers around the country. The Stephen A. Cohen Military Family Clinics are heavily involved, including the one at my own medical center. Research has shown that at least 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post-traumatic stress or depression, but less than half seek help.

The alliance hopes to help overcome this by building support systems like Team 43, which come together at sports events like the bike ride and share stories, struggles and hopes.

One of the most inspiring stories involves Marine Cpl. Dave Smith, who spoke at the first Warrior 100K mountain bike ride that I attended in 2012 and returned this year to ride with the alumni. He wears a haunted expression in President Bush’s evocative portrait in his book Portraits of Courage.

In Iraq in 2004, Smith’s unit came under heavy fire, and while trying to defend his position, he accidentally shot a fellow Marine in the leg. He has suffered for it ever since. He once put a shotgun in his mouth and almost pulled the trigger. He stopped himself at the last minute, thinking of a fellow vet who committed suicide and hurt many who cared about him.

Smith’s motto now is “Never give up.” He says he has sustained post-traumatic growth and that his heavy networking with fellow vets has helped him rebuild his life.

“A lot of it had to do with serving other people,” President Bush told me. “He got his spirit back, now married, and seems great.”

Healing through strenuous exercise, camaraderie, leadership and mutual respect is powerful and effective.

Marc Siegel, M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He has been a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008.