Motorcycles have always been a part of Stephanie Cutts’ life, for better or worse.
Her husband, Frank, died in a motorcycle accident. But the 35-year-old Navy veteran has continued riding, both to honor his memory and because of the relationships she has developed with folks in the motorcycle world.
As Cutts has known for years, the motorcycle community is a vibrant, supportive group that brings together anyone who loves bikes as much as she does. It has been especially hospitable to veterans seeking healthy outlets to combat PTSD or other mental-health symptoms related to their time in the military.
“There obviously is the adrenaline and the dangerous aspects where you have to constantly be on guard,” she said. “I think there is a deeper camaraderie, where you can connect with a stranger instantly and bond over something.”
Experts in the military and medical fields agree that activities like motorcycle-riding can at least temporarily help veterans dealing with PTSD. It certainly helped Cutts get through her trauma by providing her with a supportive community.
“[I]t’s hard to make connections with civilians because you don’t have the same core base of life experience,” she said. “But you can do that with motorcycles because gear heads are gear heads.”
Cutts’ love of motorcycles recently helped book her a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa through Uuzilo, a nonprofit dedicated to taking veterans and anyone else suffering from PTSD on motorcycle tours around Africa.
Uuzilo was started by Andrew Councill, who was in a bad place around 2015 after a rough divorce and the death of his father. Councill decided to take a trip to Africa and, on a whim, purchased his first motorcycle while in South Africa. The feeling of riding through the continent on his bike gave him a peace of mind he never thought he’d have again.
“I went from feeling like the most pitiful wretch on Earth to feeling like the luckiest person on Earth,” he said.
Councill isn’t a veteran, but he recognized that a motorcycle helped him heal from his trauma and figured it might help them too. He feels that the type of person who would go into the military is “well-suited” for this high-octane form of therapy.
“[I[t’s danger, but it’s controlling danger,” he said. “As soon as you get on a bike and take off in Africa ... you very quickly and instinctively decide if you want to live.”
Uuzilo isn’t the only organization that uses motorcycles as a therapeutic tool for veterans.
Motorcycle Missions is another nonprofit serving veterans working through trauma by teaching them about the joys of motorcycles. It was founded by Krystal Hess, another nonveteran who credits motorcycles for helping to set her on the path to recovery after getting out of an abusive relationship.
“I decided it was time to put into action this program that I had been thinking about and use it as a means of therapy for these guys and girls who struggle and suffer from the traumatic experiences they’ve had serving our country and communities,” she said.
Veterans can participate in a few bike-centric courses through Motorcycle Missions that include a motocross camp, a welding class or a build team where you learn how to construct motorcycles.
The organization also holds “build-off” competitions where teams of veterans and first-responders compete to design and build the best motorcycle. The latest one took place this April in Austin, Texas, between teams representing Austin and Dallas and was sponsored by Indian Motorcycle.
“Support of veterans and the military community is a natural fit for the brand and something we’re very passionate about,” said Indian Motorcycle Senior Director Reid Wilson.
Hess said that more than 100 veterans have gone through various Motorcycle Missions programs since 2016. She has worked with veterans who have told her they have stopped drinking, re-kindled a relationship or felt calm enough to go off their medication after working with Motorcycle Missions.
“They’re very much programmed to do a job,” she said. “When they come home, they’re not deprogrammed, and they have a hard time getting back into the normal rhythm of things … There’s intrusive thoughts, there’s nightmares, anger, aggression, alcohol abuses. Our whole goal is to prevent that from happening and give them a purpose.”
That was the case for Matthew Webb, a 34-year-old Marine veteran who was on Team Dallas during that April build-off (Team Austin narrowly won). He said that Motorcycle Missions not only made him realize that bikes are his true passion, but he’s now thinking about “ramrodding my way” into the motorcycle industry as a full-time career.
For him, being on a motorcycle is a true “place of peace.”
“When you’re riding, there’s so much going on that your body seizes on that adrenaline,” he said. “It puts you in a place where you’re around like-minded individuals … For the most part, everybody that I’ve met is extremely friendly and wants to be involved and wants to get to know you. It’s a great community full of nice, genuine people.”
He also wanted to dispel the stereotype that people who drive motorcycles are intimidating.
As he put it: “We might look scary, but we’re not!”