Retired Army Cpl. Joshua Stein is one of two wounded warriors who’ll trade off driving and riding duties in a customized Indian Motorcycle bike with sidecar. (Courtesy of Veterans Charity Ride)
By: Kevin Lilley (from www.MilitaryTimes.com)
Ride for a week in a custom motorcycle-sidecar combo with your best friend, conquer the Rocky Mountains and end up at the year’s largest, most famous biker gathering, where you’ll be greeted as VIPs.
When retired Marine Cpl. Neil Frustaglio received the details on his participation in the Veterans Charity Ride, which begins July 28 in Los Angeles, he summed up the above in four simple words.
“OK. This sounds awesome.”
Frustaglio and retired Army Cpl. Joshua Stein will make the journey side-by-side after winning the “Hero’s Ride of a Lifetime” contest, in which event organizers selected two veterans to join a 20-rider crew on the 1,550-mile, eight-day trek to Sturgis, South Dakota. They’ll travel in a modified Indian Scout Avenger Sidecar designed to accommodate the injuries each man suffered in Iraq — wounds that would bring the service members together.
In 2006, Stein was driving a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Taji, transporting service members to an Easter Mass, when an explosively formed penetrator hit. Doctors managed to save his arms. He lost both legs.
The previous December, Frustaglio and a handful of fellow Marines rushed to assist when the vehicle behind theirs in a convoy in Ramadi was disabled by an improvised explosive device. A follow-up explosion cost him his legs; he was one of five Marines to lose limbs in the blast.
Both men have been through multiple surgeries and rehabilitation processes — ride organizers said Stein wasn’t available for an interview because of his latest procedure. Years after their injuries, both were selected by Homes for Our Troops to receive a free house with modifications to allow for their mobility. They flew to Boston as part of the announcement.
“We met on that trip and got to talking,” Frustaglio said. “We had a lot of common interests. Our wives got along great, and we realized we only lived a mile and a half from each other [in Texas]. After we came home from that, we started hanging out regularly. … Our families have been close since then.”
Making the trip
Veterans Charity Ride founder Dave Frey said picking the winners for the “Hero’s Ride of a Lifetime” contest is “the hardest part of my job. … I want to take them all.”
Frey, a former Army paratrooper, put together the first ride to Sturgis as a way to introduce “motorcycle therapy” to service members returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 20 riders participate, with some returning to act as support staff and mentors for new riders.
“What was happening to them was so much more than I had been through,” said Frey, a rider his entire life. “I was in the service back in the early ’80s. There wasn’t really anything going on.”
The VCR group organizes smaller rides and motorcycle safety courses, and began its annual trip to Sturgis in 2015. That year, the rally had nearly 740,000 attendees.
Few groups stand out in such a throng, but Frey’s riders — with an assist from sponsor Indian Motorcycle and Sturgis’ Buffalo Chip Campground — are the exceptions.
“The city of Sturgis has just been phenomenal,” said Frey. “We stage up at the elementary school outside, and we’re the only group that gets a Sturgis Police escort down Main Street. People hear about it, so it’s just lined with flags, and they come out, they have signs. … We’re extremely well-received. The guys, it blows their mind. Sturgis, the biggest motorcycle rally in the world, is there to welcome our crew, our veterans.
“It’s extremely emotional and satisfying. I’m getting goosebumps just describing it.”
The riders, the ride
Frustaglio’s no stranger to this particular trip: He rode solo to Sturgis last year on his Harley-Davidson trike, he said, including a “brutal” day spanning West Texas.
He and Stein will split time in the driver’s seat and the sidecar of the modified Indian, which has a similar setup to the modified rides they’ve already got. Right-hand controls allow for acceleration and braking, and left-hand controls work the clutch and the shift.
Support staff will be on hand if there are any problems, and so will Stein, a recent graduate of the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute.
“It’s where our military experience and our skills can come in and excel,” Frey said of the ride-planning process. “Just bringing the military training and structure and what we’ve all been trained to do. … We become a unit, unify very quickly. We’re crossing the Mojave Desert at 115, 116, last year it was 118 degrees. We’ve got cooling vests. We’ve got other apparatus. … It’s a quest, it’s an adventure, but it’s also a mission. We treat it like a mission.”
It’s a mission with benefits far beyond the completion of a long journey.
“I tell a lot of guys who are looking into getting into riding that ‘wind therapy’ is a real thing,” Frustaglio said, using another term for motorcycle therapy. “For me, just hopping on my bike, even just going on a ride for a couple of hours, getting out on my road, clearing my head, whether it’s listening to music or just listening to the bike, just enjoy it. You see some scenery. Just getting away from the norm — it’s really an opportunity to get everything else out of my mind.”
For more on the program, including daily updates of the riders’ journey, visit www.veteranscharityride.org.