Wow! This is about the best way I can sum up my recent experience with Racing for Heroes and Wide Open Baja. I should mention that I am not a professional blogger or writer…so bear with me! About a month or so ago, I was approached and asked if I would be interested in being the “team therapist” for Racing for Heroes. To be honest, I had no idea what that would entail. What did have an impact on me was the fact that Racing for Heroes took mental health seriously by using me as a therapist. Of course, I wondered how Veterans would feel about having a therapist tag along. Would that create a barrier? Did they envision a guy with a clipboard following them around asking “How does that make you feel”? I found out later that none of that was an issue. One Veteran revealed to me that part of the Racing for Heroes attraction was that they did have a “team therapist”.
The next day we met our guide from Wide Open Baja and headed to Horsepower Ranch near Ensenada, Mexico. A great lunch, paperwork, death waivers, and threats of a $3,000 deductible (gulp)! We got our gear and got familiar with the race cars. The next thing I knew I was strapping in for a test drive. In the meantime, it gave me more time to get to know my fellow teammates on a more personal level. Played some volleyball…hung out by the pool…not a bad way to work! It was all fun and games until the camera guy yelled at us to keep the noise down so he could do interviews. It also struck me that there was not a military-civilian divide. These Veterans were opening up and sharing some stories with our guide, the sales guy, and the support staff. It was awesome to sit back and watch these connections happen naturally and without reservation.
I am active with several other nonprofits (Team RWB and Runwell) and knew this way be another way to work with and advocate for Veterans who struggle after service. It was also a great opportunity to get all these organizations to work together in an attempt to meet the differing needs of Veterans. For example, Racing for Heroes purchased 10 RePatriot flags that I will carry in races to honor Veterans that can no longer run. After a race, we will present that flag to the Veteran. I already feel like Old Glory gives me super powers when I run, now I will also have another Veteran running with me in spirit. Honestly, now I feel like I have everyone from Racing for Heroes, Team RWB, and Runwell along for the ride! Talk about some inspiration and virtual support! BOOM!
On Thursday morning, we strapped in and headed out for a 180ish mile jaunt through the mountains and desert of Mexico. The terrain seemed very similar to Afghanistan for me. Small villages along the route…goats…cows…horses…and the occasional cowboy. There was even the familiar beep and buzz of the radios in the helmet as we communicated within our car and to the other cars. My experience is that many Veterans with PTSD have trust issues, but yet here we were trusting our guide to lead us through a desert watching a GPS screen with no maps, no routes, and no graphics. All I knew were mileage and speed. The S-3 in me wanted to know a crap ton more than that! I trusted the car in front of me to give me distances and directions. My driver trusted me to give him information and vice versa. Teamwork and communication were paramount. Everyone had a purpose. We didn’t have the luxury of an OPORD brief or rehearsals. Because of the trust, there did not seem to be an obvious fear of the unknown. Safety is often an issue for combat Veterans.
Throughout the day there was discussion of where to place snipers, good ambush positions, rocks piled in formations….things that make the pucker factor go up for many of us. This provided a venue to Veterans to feel safe in a vehicle driving though the desert. Spent the day in some pretty wicked terrain doing things in cars I never thought possible. Definitely a confidence builder! Teamwork allowed us to conquer some challenging obstacles. There was that familiar adrenaline rush that came over me as we zipped along at high speeds through corners, over jumps, and while staring down over a cliff hoping my driver kept our machine on the road! Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without a few new nicknames! Somehow I became Doc. We also had Luke Duke and Sweetpea by the end of the trip. There was no shortage of laughter, joking, or smiles! It wouldn’t be a Veteran event if there was the “friendly” banter back and forth that most civilians might find mean or offensive! Hell, we are just showing each other love!
Racing cars was very unfamiliar terrain for me. Running and physical fitness were my comfort zone. My concept of racing involved lacing up trail running shoes, not strapping into a car. I am very open-minded and willing to try new things, so what the hell! Let’s go! I have learned that life begins outside my comfort zone. How would I know I didn’t like it if I didn’t try? I had no idea what to expect during this trip nor did I know who the participants were. Shortly after hitting the ground in San Diego we all met up for dinner. The butt-sniffing period did not take long at all. An outside observer would have thought we had known each other for years. This group came from all different backgrounds: officer, warrant officer, enlisted, even one non-veteran…Special Forces, conventional Army, combat arms, combat service support, men, and women. Some members had experience driving race cars, others didn’t. We covered the whole gambit! One thing I loved is there was no sense of divide….all one team! I did get harassed about powerpoint slides and AARs a few times. The connection of common experiences served as our foundation for a bond and sense of trust I have only experienced with other Veterans. Ah yes, that familiar feeling of the brotherhood and sisterhood!
Overall, I can say it was an amazing experience for me. Not only as the “team therapist” but as a participant. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how racing would help Veterans heal from PTSD until I saw it in action. Now I am sold! There are many adaptive sports for Veterans and this is another way to make an impact. As I learned from the founder, the cars can be adapted to fit a Veteran. The sport itself doesn’t have to change. Veterans feel more comfortable with there are feelings of trust, camaraderie, connection, and positivity. We like to be members of a team and have a purpose! We LOVE that adrenaline rush! Racing for Heroes provides that experience for Veterans (and non-Veterans). So here we brought 7 yahoos from around the country and operated as a team for successful mission accomplishment! At this point it is difficult to measure the long term impact, but the short term impact is clear to me. This experience was both personally and professionally rewarding. I left with some amazing memories, several awesome friends, a bigger support group, and a lot of dirt! If you ever want to know the history of NASCAR, just ask “Luke Duke”! The opinions and thoughts there are solely mine! For the record, I never once asked “How does that make you feel”? If you want to know more, hit me up!