Johnny Killmore, Jared Thomas, and Kaylan Harrington participated in the Veteran’s Charity Ride from Moab to Sturgis. [Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

Motorcycles swiveled around an obstacle in the Grand County High School parking lot on the sunny afternoon of July 29. Some of the drivers carried passengers in sidecars, and the “obstacle” was Jared Thomas, a tall man with a bushy brown beard wearing jeans, motorcycle boots, and a red tee-shirt with the sleeves cut off, standing unflinching as the bikers practiced avoidance moves around him.

Thomas is retired from the United States Army. He’s one of the veterans helping to lead the 2021 Veteran’s Charity Ride, an annual event (which was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19) in which veterans help each other heal and grow through “motorcycle therapy” on a trip from Moab to Sturgis, South Dakota, to attend the Sturgis Bike Rally in early August. The ride participants had just met up in Moab and were getting used to the motorcycles they would be driving on the roughly 800-mile trip.

Veteran’s Charity Ride was founded by Dave and Sue Frey, who live in Castle Valley. Dave Frey is a veteran Army Airborne Paratrooper and a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast. On a 2014 solo ride to the Sturgis Bike Rally, he met another veteran and they started talking about military members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorders and injuries. Frey wanted to help those returning veterans. He designed an event combining the therapeutic power of motorcycle riding with an atmosphere of support and fellowship to offer veterans a place to find a new perspective.

After the practical training exercise in the high school parking lot, organizers and participating veterans gathered at nearby shady picnic tables for a brown-bag lunch.

Thomas, who was joining VCR for his fourth trip, sat down with Kaylan Harrington, a member of the Army and the National Guard; Khara Adams, who is retired from the Navy; and Johnny Killmore, a Marine and member of the National Guard. Thomas amended Killmore’s introduction, calling him “World-famous Johnny Killmore.”

Killmore is a sidecar motorcycle racer and holds a speed record in the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb, though he’s modest about it. Killmore is also a journalist, often documenting motorsport culture. 2021 is his fifth year on the VCR.

Returning participants help to mentor new riders, who are nominated to join the ride by previous participants. Dave and Sue Frey organize the whole event, lining up sponsors, planning the route, and processing applications.

“It’s a huge operation to move this many people on motorcycles with food and housing and disabilities,” said Harrington, who is joining the VCR for her third year. “We’ve had a lot of different types of disabilities, we’ve had people with no legs, we’ve had people with brain damage, we’ve had pretty much every kind of challenge you could face,” she said, adding that the Freys do a great job of organizing.

Harrington said her favorite part of the ride was meeting people, both the veterans taking part in the ride and the supporters they find along the way.

“There’s so many people we’ve met in Colorado that we still talk to on Facebook. That’s the coolest part, hearing people’s stories,” she said. Of the participants, she added, “We all become super close, like a family, almost instantly—it’s weird.”

“She texts me almost every day,” Thomas confirmed.

Killmore said he was glad to still be part of an active group chat with riders from past years—though he noted that some of them live on the east coast, and when he’s in a different time zone on the west coast, sometimes his phone lights up with messages early in the morning.

“It’s great to still hear from them, but don’t text me at 5 in the morning!” he cheerfully grumbled.

Killmore added that the small size of the VCR allows for deeper conversations and connections among participants.

“A lot of larger veterans organizations—they have the event, they give you the swag bag, they take the pictures, they give you the hug—and it’s a great experience, but that’s the last you hear from them,” Killmore said.

VCR is limited to around a dozen riders a year, promoting tight bonding among everyone. That bonding happens not just through riding, but through group activities like white water rafting, horseback riding, off-road trail rides, and obstacle courses.

“In the military, too, we form these bonds through adversity,” added Harrington. “The same is true for this—two weeks on the road is not an easy thing for anybody, and so you’re all in the ‘suck’ together at some point—it’s 105 degrees and everybody’s miserable, but you’re all miserable together and you build that bond through adversity.”

The group also gets together for “vet-to-vet” talks for an hour or two each night.

“We reflect on the day and get to know people’s stories a little bit better,” said Harrington. “And those talks get deeper as we get to know each other more… a week in you know everything about everybody, whether you wish you did or not!”

Those conversations help veterans gain perspective on their lives. Killmore said that over his years with the VCR, he’s noticed that many participants arrive with the goal of helping other vets, believing that their own lives and mental states are “fine.”

“And as they start meeting other veterans and hearing their stories, they realize the reason that ‘things are OK’ and ‘I’m fine,’ is just because I’ve created a world where I don’t have to leave my house very often,” Killmore explained. As veterans withdraw into a world with fewer triggers, Killmore said, they lose sight of the possibilities of life.

“As they get out in the world and meet people on this ride, hanging out with other veterans, they start to realize, ‘Oh, I’ve really created a narrow space for myself. So things are fine, but they could be great.’”

Thomas said that described his own experience on his first VCR.

“I was in the process of getting medically retired my first year,” he said. “I was so angry about it—like, ‘Why?’ and ‘This process is stupid, I’m healthier and more fit than guys that are serving.’”

That anger and frustration, he realized, was creating toxicity in his life, though he considered himself “fine.” The VCR experience helped him see his life in a different light.

Killmore said he also had a shift in perspective his first year participating in the VCR. He hadn’t filed for disability with the Veteran’s Benefits Administration, reasoning that other veterans had been wounded more severely, and more obviously, than he had.

“Here, I meet a guy who’s missing two legs, and he said, ‘The people that really got hurt were the people that didn’t make it home at all.’ And I realized that this is just a cycle that’s carrying down further and further—the guy that’s missing an arm is worried about the guy that’s missing two arms,” said Killmore. He decided to file and received 80% benefits.

“I never would have even filed if I hadn’t done VCR. It blew my mind. It changed my whole perspective—and my whole situation,” Killmore said.

One of the most moving things about the trip, they all agreed, is the outpouring of support from the communities they ride through.

“We stop in very small towns, and the town may be population 200, and somehow there are 400 people outside,” said Harrington. “Grandmas are giving us home-baked cookies, and people are wrapping us in quilts.”

Thomas said when the group drives beneath overpasses, sometimes there are crowds above holding flags and encouraging signs.

Adams, a first-year participant of the ride, said when she heard this, “I’m a crier. I’ll tear up, I know it.”

Killmore said one reason the ride starts in Moab is the consistent support the town shows for the VCR. The ride used to launch from California, and one year left from Las Vegas, but, Killmore said, “every time we came through Moab, there was such an outpouring from the community—little kids were coming up and giving you handmade signs that they’d made, locals would show up and do a flag line in the park, the mayor would come.”

When they saw that Moab was a good place to base the program, the Freys bought a property in Castle Valley as a base for the VCR and AdventureVet, another nonprofit they founded to help veterans through outdoor adventure, motorcycle therapy, and vocational and wellness training. They work with Red Cliffs Lodge and other local businesses like Big Iron Tours for lodging and activities for participating veterans.

Big Iron Tours owner Mike Ballard is a veteran himself and has guided VCR groups on Moab tours.

“He’s great, cause he’s a local and he knows so much of the history, the geology, and how the early settlers came, so it’s not just looking at beautiful landscapes and doing offroading,” said Killmore of touring with Ballard. After a few days in Moab, the group hit the road, stopping in Steamboat and Fort Collins in Colorado and Fort Robinson in Wyoming before reaching the Sturgis Bike Rally last week. They all agreed, though, that the rally wasn’t the point of the ride.

“That old biker saying, ‘It’s not about the destination, it’s about the ride’—it’s pretty true,” said Killmore. It’s also about a new perspective and time spent with other veterans.

“You can’t get that through talk therapy or group therapy or a Youtube video or a self-help book,” said Killmore. “I don’t know where else you can get it besides VCR.”