Navy Reservist: The Legion Riders saved my life

Navy Reservist: The Legion Riders saved my life

Stephani Williamson was in a bad place in 2023.

Her mother had passed away, and she went through a divorce. But at a point where she said she’d become emotionally numb, she met a group of American Legion Riders at Chapter 149 in Escondido, Calif., who changed her life. Literally.

Williamson, currently in her 17th year serving in the U.S. Navy Reserve, shared her experience with the riders in the American Legion Friends Facebook group when she was taking part in the group’s Be the One chat. It came in the form of a few simple sentences, but it captured exactly how Williamson felt:

“The Riders changed my life! I got to ride along with them and become part of that family. It really pulled me out of my depression and start to find myself. I don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for them.”

One of the page’s administrators, Whitney Smith McIntosh, was in the chat and reached out to Williamson, asking if she could share the message on other Facebook pages.

McIntosh – the Department of Iowa chaplain, adjutant at American Legion Post 682 in Altoona and secretary for Baldwin-Patterson American Legion Riders Chapter 274 in Des Moines – wanted to make fellow Legion Riders aware of the impact they have on others.

“I wanted to show, ‘Hey, look guys, this is what we’re doing,’” McIntosh said. “I love the Legion. They’re my family. But I love the Riders. If there’s anything I can do to further the Riders, I’ll do it.”

Williamson is in the process of joining American Legion Post 93 in Camp Verde, Ariz., and said she’d recently moved to the state when she connected with Chapter 149 while attending a dinner at the post with her son.

Because of lower back injuries that have caused nerve damage, Williamson cannot ride on her own, and while talking with the Riders she remarked how much she’d still like to be able to get on a bike.

That’s when the Riders invited her on their next ride. At first, she rode on the back of a friend’s trike, but on later rides she rode as a passenger of different Legion Riders.

“They’re all my big brothers,” Williamson said of the group. “They let me come on rides with them. I’ve done poker runs with them. All but one of my kids have gone on rides. They’ve even given each of my kids nicknames.”

Williamson said meeting the Riders helped her turn her life around. “They were just a godsend to me,” she said. “I was going through my mother’s passing and pretty much just became a shell. The antidepressants I was on, they made me feel nothing.

“Riding was so much more than just riding to me. You’re not on your phone, you’re not multi-tasking. You’re not doing anything but sitting there and taking in the scenery and maybe listening to music. It would take the first 10-20 minutes of the ride to calm me, and then … there were times when I literally could imagine my mom flying right there beside us.”

But Chapter 149 provided Williamson with more than time on the road. “These guys helped me when I finally decided to leave my husband,” she said. “They are the ones that through a trailer on the back of one of their trucks and came over to help me load everything up. They literally just became family.”

Eventually, Williamson got connected with the American Legion Friends Facebook group. McIntosh said the group’s Be the One chat was set up as a forum for members of the group to ask questions about Be the One and receive mentoring. It also serves as a way to get members who might be approaching crisis mode to get local assistance.

“Let’s say if I ran into someone who needed immediate help but they’re in Arizona,” McIntosh said. “I would hop on the chat and say, ‘Hey, who here is from Arizona? I have somebody who needs you.’ And we would kind of branch out like that.”

But McIntosh said the chat now has evolved into a “share your stories chat.” And that’s where Williamson shared hers.

“I saw everyone was talking about suicide prevention. And it reminded me of (the experiences with Chapter 149),” Williamson said. “When I was at my very lowest, these guys and gals, they pulled me out of that. They gave me a family I could count on and a purpose. It kind of woke me up and feel like I wanted to be a part of the Legion and be a part of programs like that.

“From there, it was just a trickle of events that have completely altered the course of my life to being the amazing life I have now. And it all started with being outside talking to two motorcycle riders.”