When Keith Helfrich retired from Fort Carson’s 10th Special Forces Group in 2013, he was struggling to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of a traumatic brain injury.
“I was at place in my life where I didn’t want to go anywhere, didn’t want to do anything, didn’t want to get out of the house,” said Helfrich, 50, who retired as a sergeant major. During his 26 years in the Army, he deployed to Iraq four times and earned a Bronze Star Medal.
Then Helfrich was invited to go on the 2016 Veterans Charity Ride to Sturgis, S.D., a multiday ride for amputees and wounded veterans. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go, but the ride’s founder flew out to Texas, where Helfrich lives, to persuade him.
This year, Helfrich went on his fourth cross-country ride with the nonprofit. He now focuses on mentoring veterans who are new to the program.
Motorcycle groups across the country have brought veterans together, creating communities that help them heal and readjust to civilian life. Thousands of motorcyclists are expected to gather Aug. 17 for the annual POW/MIA Recognition Ride, part of the weekend-long Salute to American Veterans Rally in Cripple Creek. Motorcycle groups have also helped local veterans organizations see their first growth in decades.
“When you retire, you left the military, which had camaraderie,” Helfrich said. “Unfortunately, something happens medically, and you retire. Then you go to a life where there is no camaraderie. You’re just kind of stuck there, you start getting depressed, you don’t want to do nothing. You just kind of get angry at the world.
“What (Veterans Charity Ride) does is brings you out of that shell and puts you in with other veterans that understand. ... Somewhere along this trip, these veterans’ lights will come on and they’ll start opening up and they’ll start sharing their problems. And one of these guys might be going through a problem that I’ve already went through, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, hey man, look, do this, call these people.’”
This year’s fifth annual Veterans Charity Ride to Sturgis began July 25 in Salt Lake City and ended Thursday at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. Along the way, the group of 17 veterans stayed in Eagle, Colorado Springs and Fort Collins.
The motorcyclists spent Tuesday night at Hotel Eleganté, 2886 S. Circle Drive, then rode up Pikes Peak on Wednesday.
The ride takes veterans through states they might not have been to before, Helfrich said.
“Most of these guys spent half their career — or some of them, all their career — in a combat zone, fighting for the freedom and the Constitution and all that, and really never got to see their own backyard,” he said. “So this trip takes them cross-country and they get to see some beautiful scenery. They get to see what they were fighting for and what they were protecting.”
Dave Frey, a retired Army paratrooper, said he started the nonprofit to offer “motorcycle therapy” to veterans.
Participants rode a variety of Indian Motorcycle models, many of which had been modified — some with custom, built-in Champion sidecars for amputee veterans. Some have been donated by Indian Motorcycle, a sponsor of the ride.
“Motorcycle therapy is a phenomenon that happens when you are truly riding a motorcycle, in command of that machine, connecting to the environment with your sight, sound, touch — all your perceptions that you just don’t get in a car or a truck,” said Frey, a lifelong motorcyclist.