Can a motorcycle help cure post-traumatic stress? Jay Allen thinks so. A custom-bike builder and owner of a nationwide string of taverns catering to riders, he's convinced that a roaring two-wheeled machine can be good medicine for military veterans recovering from PTS.
"It seems like the one thing they want to do when they come back (from service) is to kind of get their head in the wind and deal with the things that they've done in serving our country," Allen says. "For a lot of them, it's therapy. I've met so many compelling and amazing people in the past 20 years serving them as the owner of the Broken Spoke Saloon. It just seems to me that motorcycling and serving in the military are kind of synonymous."
Allen's affinity for both motorbikes and biker vets will be on display during the 25th Rolling Thunder Run to the Wall in Washington later this month. A highlight of the Memorial Day weekend event will be his unveiling of four custom-designed and custom-fabricated bikes. Each is crafted and painted in honor of a particular service branch: Army, Air Force, Navy Marine and Coast Guard.
"At Broken Spoke, we have always been so pro-vet, so pro-military, in paying our respects to the people who have served our country," Allen explains. "So I built a little Army bike that was featured in American Iron magazine. This little bike is what planted the seed for this amazing program. Several friends helped me build it. When you see it, I think you're going to go, ‘I love that bike.'"
Two observers who did were Rolling Thunder honchos Ted Shpak and Walt Sides.
"Ted and Walt came to me and said, ‘Y'know, that Army bike has made such a presence. What do you think about doing Air Force, Navy, Marine and U.S. Coast Guard bikes?' So I started saving up power plants and waiting for the time that people would commit to doing this and, by golly ...."
Supported by engine manufacturer S&S Cycle, Inc., and gearbox maker Baker Drivetrain, four artists soon volunteered to do the paint jobs. The number of volunteers was no surprise to Allen.
"We are a tiny community," he says. "We are so small and so tight. We have tremendous support not just for causes but for each other. It's phenomenal. Brigitte Bourget (of Bourget's Bike Works) was the first to step up, saying she wanted to do a Marine tribute bike. And then Dar Holdsworth of Brass Balls Bobbers (aka Darwin Motorcycles) volunteered to do one for the Navy."
For the Coast Guard, Mike Tomas of Kiwi Indian Motorcycle Co. has prepared "an honest to goodness 1945 Indian," Allen says.
Rounding out the Rolling Thunder tribute bike display is an entry by Choppers Inc.'s Billy Lane, who fashioned his creation at a correctional facility near MacDill Air Force Base in central Florida, where he's been serving time for vehicular homicide since 2009. The project, honoring the Air Force, is a natural fit for the institution's vocational-training porgram for selected inmates.
"Rolling Thunder sent a letter to the warden because Billy did so much for the armed forces before he went to prison," Allen says. The letter asked that he be allowed to build a bike for the Air Force while incarcerated.
"I gotta tell you – the warden, he is a great man," Allen says. "He agreed, saying it was good for the inmates, good for the correctional institute and good for the country. He went to his higher-ups and they agreed, too."
Some of Lane's fellow inmates, and even prison staff, helped with the project.
After the Rolling Thunder run, all five custom bikes will be part of a nationwide tour of veterans medical centers and treatment facilities. Here again, their therapeutic value will be displayed, Allen says.
"They all run. You can start them. You can hear them. You can participate with them. They're living beings. I think they'll be like taking a therapy dog to a hospital."
The bikes' first public display, during Rolling Thunder, will be more than a photo opportunity.
"When we debut these bikes, I'm not just pulling a flag off them and going, ‘Wow, look at the pretty bike,'" Allen says. "You're going to hear from a 200,000-watt sound system these things going ‘br-rr-rup, br-rr-rup, br-rr-rup, br-rr-rup.' You're gonna hear the heart, you're gonna hear the valve train, until it just permeates your body."
Craig Roberts is a multimedia specialist for The American Legion.