Their final destination: the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Aug. 4 to 13 in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“We leave tomorrow, Friday, and we get there the following Saturday, so we’ll be, let’s see, nine days on the road,” said Robert Manciero, co-founder of the nonprofit Veterans Charity Ride, which organizes the annual excursion as “motorcycle therapy.”
First, though, the 15 veterans from around the country, all of them disabled and combat experienced, made a stop July 27 at Learn to Ride VC, a motorcycle training facility at Camarillo Airport, to brush up on their cycling skills.
Although most of the veterans already had some formal training, Learn to Ride donated a shortened version of the seven-hour course to Manciero’s nonprofit. Certified instructors Bob Drummond and Jose Padron coached the riders through some practice turns and curves on an unused portion of the airfield.
“Last year everybody said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a great rider, I’ve got tons of experience.’ But as we got going, we found out some of them weren’t that good,” said Army’s 10th Special Forces veteran and “point” rider Keith Helfrich of Houston.
From Los Angeles Fire Department Station 77 in Sunland on July 28, the convoy was set to head east to Las Vegas, then to Bryce Canyon National Park, spending a day at each destination, before landing in Moab, Utah, where they were scheduled to spend three days at the Red Cliffs Lodge for horseback riding, hiking, river rafting and outdoor recreation.
In Eagle, Colo., a small burg of around 6,700 people, townsfolk will turn out to greet the group as they ride in, said Manciero, a film producer who, along with his three-man film crew, will document the entire journey on the internet.
The group was set to travel next to Denver Hot Springs and, finally, the Black Hills and the 77th Sturgis bike rally, where they’ll spend a full week. At each stop, “lots of activities, a lot of adventures are planned for them (and) a lot of surprises,” Manciero said at the airport.
“I can’t reveal all the surprises, but I can tell you one, but you can’t tell anyone,” he said with a wink. “Today, after this, they’re going back thinking they’re going to a warehouse, but it’s going to be Jay Leno’s garage. They’re going to get a tour of Jay Leno’s garage.”
When his good buddy Dave Frey, a former U.S. Army Airborne paratrooper, came to him three years ago with the idea of taking a group of veterans up to Sturgis, Manciero, who is not a veteran, seized on it as a chance to open the public’s eyes to the challenges and struggles facing returning combat veterans, he said.
“I don’t think people really understand what it means to go to war and come back injured,” he said.
Frey did. Three years ago, he had taken a solo ride to Sturgis and, after talking with other veterans there who were also struggling to adjust to life after combat, he came back with the idea for Veterans Charity Ride. He and Manciero recruited a small group of vets and a few sponsors and organized the first ride in 2015.
Corporate sponsors Indian Motorcycle and Monster Energy, along with a slew of other companies, now pick up nearly the entire tab for the veterans’ trip: their rumbling two- and three-wheeled bikes, their foot-gear and the motorhome-size film production lab that’s tailing the group and “pushing out” daily videos of their adventure, Manciero said.
Indian and Monster upload the travelogues onto their websites, where visitors can follow along with the riders, check out their bikes and look up their individual profiles.
Riding one of three Indian bikes with sidecars, former Army medic Robert Pinkham pulled two combat tours with the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq—in Bagdad from 2006 to 2007 and in Tikrit from 2007 to 2008—returning home with a traumatic head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The nervous disorder strikes him and other vets he knows with debilitating residual effects of war, he said, a feeling of “being on guard all the time.”
“ PTSD is exhausting,” Pinkham said. “By the end of the day you’re just so worn out from being constantly anxious all the time. This is great, being around a bunch of guys and not being on guard all the time.”
For him and the other veterans hand-selected by Frey, the “trip of a lifetime” to Sturgis isn’t about the bikes or the road, really.
“I’m looking forward to getting together with a group of guys who understand. Everything you feel, they understand it,” said Robert Snyder, 38, of Goodyear, Ariz., Pinkham’s “sidecar pilot.”
“Having that and being around that brotherhood again is really cool,” he said.
The Army veteran served in Iraq in 2005 and suffered a spinal cord injury during a training exercise that put him in a wheelchair and also left him with hearing loss in his right ear and PTSD.
He and Pinkham met at Arizona Bike Week in April and the two became “fast friends.”
“I love it,” Snyder said of traveling in a sidecar. “When you’re the pilot, you’re focused on what’s ahead. But riding in that sidecar I get to look at the scenery and see this country.”
After a quick lunch at Camarillo Airport, the group loaded up, and with a rumble of engines, the 15 veterans hit the road to Sturgis and, hopefully, a fuller recovery.