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Motorcycle therapy boosts vets' mental health

Sunday giveaway was first for new VTwin Project


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: RICK PAULSON  - William Taz Risco (left), who plans to study social work at Pacific University in Forest Grove next fall, gives a thumbs-up with U.S. Marine Tyler Andreatta, the veteran who received this 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 as a therapy tool and a thank-you for his service in the Middle East.They may be back on U.S. soil, but their thoughts take them across the continents to the Middle East, where they’re dodging bullets, stepping carefully to avoid bombs, watching their friends bleed.

They walk amidst 550,000 other county residents in ordinary professions — tattoo artists, mechanics, retail specialists.

But their former jobs were anything but ordinary. They’re veterans, and there are about 40,000 to 50,000 of them in Washington County.

Many are teetering on that thin line between holding it all together and falling apart. Some look for solace in drugs and alcohol. Some look for it through government programs.

And some, like Aaron Perry, find it on the open road, where unwanted thoughts blow through their minds like the wind through their hair.

Out there nothing takes hold — especially not pain, anxiety, exasperation or fear. For a few minutes or hours, they’re back in this country, looking at the landscapes passing them by, away from that place only understood by others who have been there.

At least that’s the idea behind the recently formed VTwin Project for veterans: motorcycle therapy.

Perry and former Gaston resident John Cloutier — veterans and founders of the project — have decided to give away motorcycles to deserving Pacific Northwest veterans.

“I knew a lot of guys who were looking forward to coming home to a motorcycle, but you’re back and you’re trying to get your life back together and they aren’t cheap,” Cloutier said.

Surprisingly, “it’s been a lot of work to give something away,” he said, referring to all the organizing and fundraising efforts involved.

VTwin is not a nonprofit. It’s just two guys trying to do something good, which sparked some uncertainty along the way, Cloutier said. “People are skeptical. Why would anybody in their right mind do what we’re doing?”

The pair accepted nominations from community members and gave their first bike away last weekend to Medford resident and U.S. Marine Tyler Andreatta, who went to Afghanistan in 2011, where he was hit by enemy fire.

Andreatta had three surgeries to remove shrapnel and repair damaged tissue after a bullet pierced his lung and exited through his back. He also has received treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Andreatta now helps out at Divide Camp in Joseph, Ore., a new nonprofit formed to reward “our combat warriors” with outdoor adventures that can help them return to a normal lifestyle. by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: RICK PAULSON  - William Taz Risco (left), who plans to study social work at Pacific University in Forest Grove next fall, gives a thumbs-up with U.S. Marine Tyler Andreatta, the veteran who received this 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 as a therapy tool and a thank-you for his service in the Middle East.

“I’m really excited to give this bike away,” said Perry, who helped lead the event at Aloha Tattoo in downtown Hillsboro last Sunday morning. About 50 people attended, including many veterans, who got a chance to briefly recapture that tight military camaraderie.

“You can’t find it anywhere like from a military environment,” said Cloutier, who reenlisted in the Air National Guard last year.

Not all veterans leave the military damaged. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than 90 percent of veterans said they improved their self-confidence and cooperation skills.

But Perry and Cloutier know the negative effects of military trauma — through their own struggles and those of close friends.

Howard Harrison, a psychiatrist who helped select Andreatta, thinks the fact that people came together and gave time and money to the project should send a major message: “People care about you.”

Veterans often believe nobody cares about their sacrifices and their problems.

“That’s a very lonely place,” Harrison said.

Although Harrison doesn’t recommend people use fast cars and motorcycles to “run away from their ghosts,” he thinks motorcycling can be therapeutic.

“To ride a motorcycle safely requires you to be in the present,” he said. “Most mental disorders stem from thinking about your memories, your nightmares, your fears, and it spins around and around and around. You have to get away from negative thoughts and messages.

“You have to get out of your head. You need to look for the good and beauty around you,” he said. “The beauty of the natural environment can help.”

In addition, bright, natural light is a known anti-depressant, said Harrison, who has treated vets with PTSD, which often causes a pervasive anger that probably comes from “hurting so bad.”

PTSD often stems from self-protective behaviors which are life-saving when soldiers are in combat, but problematic in civilian life, such as a heightened startle reflex or overly aggressive behavior when feeling threatened.

The VTwin Project — named for the V-twin engine found in many cruiser-style motorcycles — was born after Perry drove from Idaho on his motorcycle to visit Cloutier during a particularly tumultuous time in his life.

“Anybody who rides will tell you the best therapy is on two wheels,” said Perry, an Air Force veteran.

He and Cloutier began fundraising and eventually found a motorcycle on Craigslist, and the seller was a former Marine.

“Some people want to talk about it and some people just want to twist the throttle,” said Cloutier, a member of the Air National Guard for decades. “Nothing can touch you. Nothing can bother you. You’re just in your own world.”

Chaz Hedrick, who runs Chaz Auto and RV in Hillsboro, and William “Taz” Risco, who runs Hillsboro’s Aloha Tattoo, agree. That’s why they jumped on board to support the project. Portland Beard Company and D&S Cycle Supply are also supporters.

Although Hedrick isn’t a veteran, he’s helping in honor of his father, who served, and his son, a Navy Seal who died when his helicopter was shot out of the Afghanistan sky.

“I hope this brings attention to veterans. I hope this helps someone,” said Hedrick, who donated his services to airbrush a patriotic symbol and detail the motorcycle for Andreatta, including a “Gremlin Bell” to protect the motorcycle from evil spirits.

Risco, who will major in social work next fall at Pacific University in Forest Grove, said he’ll do anything to help a guy in uniform.

At 20, he joined the Navy to get off the streets of Los Angeles. “It taught me what I wanted to be,” he said.

But after 20 years of feeling like Superman, Risco struggled after his discharge.

“You don’t know who you are. I didn’t have a damn thing when I got out,” he said. “The first year out I walked around lost. I was numb.”

He suffered through many sleepless nights and other symptoms of PTSD and experienced a form of survivor’s guilt over his comrades who died.

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: RICK PAULSON  - William Taz Risco (left), who plans to study social work at Pacific University in Forest Grove next fall, gives a thumbs-up with U.S. Marine Tyler Andreatta, the veteran who received this 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 as a therapy tool and a thank-you for his service in the Middle East.“I never got a chance to go back and take care of things,” he said. “Nothing seems as important as the stuff you did in service.”

Risco found help through the Wounded Warrior Project, which operates under the motto, “The Greatest Casualty is Being Forgotten.”

As a motorcycle rider himself, Risco understands its therapeutic value and was happy to host the giveaway ceremony at his downtown Hillsboro tattoo parlor.

“It gives you a chance to work things out, to not think of anything but the road. It gives you a sense of clarity,” he said. “I don’t do yoga; I’m not a meditator. But when you ride, everything you want just comes to you and things work out in your head.

“I’ve talked to a lot of different vets and the best help is often inside their own head,” said Risco, who hopes his social-work degree will better equip him to help other veterans.

He’s not alone in that desire to help.

“I want to look back and say, ‘What did I do when I had the opportunity to do something good for somebody?’” Cloutier said. “Good deeds have a way of coming back around.”




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