According to Rider‘s 2022 readership survey, 30% of our readers are active military or veterans. We all enjoy the freedom and excitement of riding motorcycles, but for many veterans, riding a motorcycle serves a therapeutic purpose as well. Cory Angell, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a member of the Pennsylvania VFW, District 29 Riders, shares this story about the healing power of Wheels 4 Warriors and the VFW Riders.
Jesse Cunningham served in the U.S. Army as a military policeman. His combat tours in Iraq were extensive and caused changes to him and his life. He now helps veterans across the country journey to a better place by riding motorcycles.
“I came back from my first tour, and I couldn’t relate to the world back here,” Cunningham said. “So I turned right around and did it again. It just felt easier being over there.”
Faced with problems adjusting – and a family that could see the effects – Cunningham left the military and began seeking ways to heal.
“I was with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, where I met a Vietnam veteran,” Cunningham said. “It was more than just riding. I had a mentor, a combat veteran who helped me in other ways – in ways only a combat veteran can.”
Cunningham serves as the vice president for Wheels 4 Warriors, which helps “Veterans two wheels at a time.” The Nebraska-based organization partners with veteran organizations across the U.S. to establish mentorship programs. These programs provide veterans with camaraderie, support, and the sense of service that was lost after leaving the military.
In Pennsylvania, Wheels 4 Warriors helped Veterans of Foreign Wars, District 29 Riders secure a motorcycle for a veteran. The organization went as far as reviewing the veteran’s service and adding custom art to the motorcycle.
Pennsylvania VFW, District 29 Riders President Anthony Warner said riding seems to be a natural fit for a veteran.
“Many of us worked on vehicles and did mechanical work,” he said. “Riding involves teamwork, safety, and adrenaline. It’s a natural extension of us. When you leave the military what do you do with that energy?”
Pennsylvania is not the only state. Rob Pedersen, VFW Riders Virginia President and Department Chairman, sees it too with growing numbers of riding veterans.
“I am a VFW Rider and American Legion Rider,” said Pedersen. “I enjoy riding with likeminded people, but just getting wind in my face does wonders for me personally.”
Pedersen rode as a kid on dirtbikes and got his first streetbike, a 1983 Honda VT500C, in the late ’80s. It was his mode of transportation for years, but then his life changed and he didn’t ride for 15 years.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed it, and that it could just melt the stress off of you,” Pedersen said. “I have seen shows that talk about how riding helps with PTSD, and I believe that to be true.”
The positive effects of riding were measured in “Modulation of attention and stress with arousal: The mental and physical effects of riding a motorcycle,” a study published in the journal Brain Research in 2021.
“Stress levels … continue to rise, and people are exploring pathways to better their mental and physical health,” said Dr. Don Vaughn, the neuroscientist who led the research team. “The differences in participants’ neurological and physiological responses between riding and other measured activities were quite pronounced. This could be significant for mitigating everyday stresses.”
While study participants were riding, the study found enhanced sensory processing and visual attention, increased focus, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Pedersen, Warner, and Cunningham all agree – it’s not just about riding.
“The riders in Virginia with the VFW and American Legion have grown over the seven to eight years I have been involved with them,” Pedersen said. “Our Virginia riders do a ton of things for their posts and communities. I imagine it’s that way wherever you go.”
In Pennsylvania, Warner said they want to reach those who didn’t ride before but always thought about trying it.
“Any veteran that wants to ride, we are here to help,” Warner continued. “We are safety oriented, just like the military. We have training options for you and help you get your license.”