Veterans turn to bicycles to help overcome PTSD and physical challenges
For some people, walking out of the front door is a daunting prospect, and the mere act of going to the mall or standing in a crowded grocery store causes overwhelming anxiety.
Living a life of fear, apprehension and isolation is a consuming handicap associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and thousands of veterans battle it every day.
The government estimates more than 30 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from the condition, and it afflicts as many as 10 percent of veterans from more recent Middle Eastern conflicts.
The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oklahoma City is helping many of those veterans on the long road to recovery, and it is using the bicycle to get them there.
Last spring, the VA established a cycling team with a handful of members who get together at least once a week to ride together and to learn more about cycling.
“Cycling helps build camaraderie among the veterans, and it gets them together, out in the country,” said Sandy Bond, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Oklahoma City's VA center. “It helps with coping skills and improves quality of life through recreation.”
The group rides range from 15 to 25 miles, following the network of cycling trails in Oklahoma City. The team spent the summer training for long-distance cycling events at the end of the season. They rode the OBS Streak in September, and they will conclude their year on Oct. 20 with the Rotary Road Rally in Norman, www.normanrotary.org.
Bond said the cycling program helps veterans increase fitness and physical functioning. It also increases endurance, helps reduce weight, decreases depression, decreases anxiety and improves self-esteem. The social interaction of being part of the group also establishes a community support system and decreases loneliness.
For Ron Sanchez, cycling is an escape. The 43-year-old served 16 years in the Army and was deployed to Iraq three times. He was discharged in 2011 with PTSD and major depression. For several years, he locked himself in a room, rarely going outside. When he had to shop for food, he would do it late at night to avoid being around other people.
He says recreation therapy programs at the VA are helping him, and the cycling program is broadening his horizons. He now owns a bike, rides the trails regularly with the group and recently completed the OBS Streak's 64-mile metric century.
He's looking forward to the Rotary Road Rally in Norman, and one day, he would like to ride his bike across America.
“These programs at the VA just kind of opened it up for me,” Sanchez said. “Before the VA, my health was just going downhill. I sat around and ate junk food all the time. The VA was welcoming, and it's been a good program for me. I tell everybody about it.”
Brandon Tabor is a 45-year-old Navy veteran who injured his back while in the service, and he says cycling was the bridge that helped him recover from surgery he had three years ago. At the time, Tabor's doctor told him that he may never walk again, but he worked with the VA to battle back.
Starting with a stationary bike, his journey was gradual, but he eventually transitioned to a road bike and completed a 125-mile ride in 2017. He also competes in Oklahoma's annual Endeavor Games for athletes with disabilities, and he recently completed the Hotter'N Hell Hundred in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Tabor, who also suffers from PTSD, says cycling helps reduce the pain in his back. Because of the good that cycling has done for him, he's become a strong advocate, pushing VA therapist Bond into establishing the VA's cycling program last May. Now, he's a ride leader in the program and a mentor to the beginners in their group.
One of the challenges many veterans face is interacting with people, Tabor said. This cycling program helps them build a sense of community, and it has fostered interaction.
Bond said there are hundreds of veterans who participate in the VA's recreation therapy programs, and she hopes to attract more people to the cycling program next season.
“Awareness is our biggest hurdle, getting people aware of what we're doing,” she says.
Her goal is for team members to transition away from the VA's cycling program and into Oklahoma City's broader cycling community, where there are many weekly club rides and cycling events year around.
The Rotary Road Rally soon will be over, and the VA's first cycling season will be finished, but Sanchez says he's just getting started because cycling has become a source of fulfillment for him.
“I like feeling like I've accomplished something,” he said. “No matter what distance you've ridden, you still feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Chip Minty is a lifelong cyclist, writer and owner of Minty Communications LLC, a Norman-based public relations and marketing firm.