'Team 43' trail riders creating a recovery paradigm for veterans

'Team 43' trail riders creating a recovery paradigm for veterans
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The George W. Bush Institute Warrior 100K mountain bike ride took place this past Friday and Saturday on President Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. It was the eighth time this event has been held, and I have had the great honor to be there for seven of them. 

It is a unique combination of endurance exercise and camaraderie as a form of healing for military veterans. There were 16 warriors chosen this year for the ride and, by the second day, the presence of warrior alumni and supporters, including me, swelled the number of participants to more than a hundred. 

This event is all about healing, courage and, as President Bush says, about peer-to-peer counseling between our war heroes. Riding with them out on the trail, I was once again deeply humbled to be in the presence of men and women who are overcoming their disabilities — visible and invisible — not only on their bikes but in their lives. They fought for our country, and now we must do all we can to help them recover. 

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The former president insists that the ride not be about him but, instead, about honoring our veterans. Not just honoring them, but providing them with a focus to help them retool and reenter civilian society.  

Many of the veterans who participate in this event have said they notice his genuineness and generosity, now more than ten years after he left office. Several have indicated to me that they consider their former commander-in-chief to be one of them. 

President Bush told me how much he admires our vets. “These are people who volunteered in the face of danger. And they don't complain,” he said. He introduced me to Col. Patricia Collins, who returned to the war in Afghanistan following an amputation and went on to command a signal battalion. Bush said, “So, like Patty, you know, she is typical of somebody who gets hurt, says to ‘Put me back in,’ and she goes.”

We rode mountain bikes together, and “Team 43” — as the riders are known, in honor of their former commander-in-chief — rode in formation and helped each other on the bike trail, with the goal of shared healing. Together, they are forming a new network which includes prior military connections and new ones. 

I spoke with Chief Petty Officer Abby Malchow, who served in Iraq and survived daily rocket fire, a suicide bomber, and seeing her squadron leader and her best friend take their own lives. She is recovering now, despite a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and she is figuring out a paradigm for reaching other veterans who also are in trouble.  

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“The ride was such an incredible rewarding experience,” she said. “There was so much camaraderie, so much team work. We all started together and finished together. It just was wonderful to see so many people who have been wounded in war persevere, whether they lost a limb or it is an invisible wound. … I think it really shows other veterans that you can adapt and overcome your wounds ... if you really rely on your community.”

But learning to trust and rely on your community isn’t easy. “Because it takes courage to ask for help … takes courage to admit it,” Chief Malchow said. “And to say, ‘You know what, the stigma may be there, but my health is more important to me at the end of the day.’ ” 

The personal spirit passing from one warrior to another during the ride was uplifting, optimistic, contagious. Colonel Matt Amidon, head of the Bush Institute Military Service Initiative, told me that one of the main goals is to provide the tools for military leaders to transition to effective civilian leaders. 

We all came to Crawford to participate or to help with that important transition. Team 43 is an important role model for other vets, too, as word of this recovery paradigm spreads to communities across the country.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @drmarcsiegel.