At the Bush Institute’s fifth annual Warrior 100K Mountain Bike Ride, which honors our men and women wounded in military service, former president George W. Bush characteristically did not talk to me about how he felt riding more than 60 miles on two partial knee replacements. He focused instead on the compassion and responsibility he felt for our vets. “We have a duty,” he said, “and all of us can help. Many are helping. When you compare this era with the Vietnam era, for example, the outpouring of compassion and support for our vets is magnificent. At the Bush Center . . . we are figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, to make the sure the compassion is properly channeled to our vets.”
It was an honor for me to participate in the ride, which this year took place April 30 to May 2. It was my fourth consecutive time. The theme this year was the “invisible wounds of war” — namely, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Of the more than 2 million veterans of the post-9/11 era, more than 300,000 suffer from these conditions. The Military Service Initiative of the Bush Institute joins veterans’ centers around the country to reduce the stigma that many veterans feel. For example, the Bush Institute has dropped the “D,” for “disorder,” because most veterans who are suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress do not have a disorder per se but continue to function despite anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, flashbacks, and problems with their relationships. Despite these tangible signs of injury, one veteran told me that she didn’t feel she “deserved” to be called wounded.
Most veterans suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress do not have a disorder per se but continue to function despite hardships.
“It’s not a disorder, it’s part of me — it’s what shapes me, it makes me who I am today,” said another warrior, Command Sergeant Major Brian Flom, who was wounded by a rocket attack in Baghdad in 2007 and spent six weeks being treated for his wounds before returning to Iraq to finish his deployment. “I can let it handicap me and make it a disorder if I choose to,” he said, “or I can come out and get outside and do events like this. I live with it, and I learn to cope with it every day.”
“We’re here riding with people who got hurt, they’re injured, and yet they refuse to allow their injury to consign them to a dull, meaningless life,” President Bush said.
On the final day, 14 alumni from previous years’ rides joined the 17 warriors and several supporters, including me, riding with President Bush. The aim of all was to spread a message of hope to veterans around the country. Out on the trail the warriors rode in single file, their tires aligned, as though in military formation. President Bush, riding at the front, knew where each rider was at any given moment and how he or she was faring. The three days were an exercise in teamwork, in hope, in group healing.
“It’s more than just a bike ride,” President Bush said. “We’re setting up a group of soldiers that stay in touch with each other, who are helping build a support network. . . . When I was commander-in-chief, one thing I knew for certain was that a happy family meant a happy soldier, and so we worked hard to make sure that military families were supported as well. . . . You know, one of the things I loved the most about this ride is the fact that many of the spouses were riding in recognition of the fact that men and women recover better when their spouse helps them and participates with them.”
This was the third consecutive year that the ride took place on the trails of President Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. Inviting the vets to his home to honor them, he demonstrated that his love for our military remains a powerful force in his life. Our former president continues to lead, even now, not from a haughty perch but from out on the trail, as one of the riders.