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Veterans use 'wind therapy' to ease stress, help comrades

Engines roared and pipes steamed as the four motorcycles veered around the corner near Craigville Beach.

It was 45 degrees and raining, the wind shaking what was left of the leaves off their branches.

Even some of the riders would have agreed that no one in their right mind would be out riding in such weather — and yet they were, seeking exactly that state of mind on the backs of their rides as the rain poured down.

They call it "wind therapy," a special kind of solace that, for military veterans struggling with everyday life or the scenes they saw overseas, comes with riding motorcycles and the inherent freedom and friendship that follows.

"There has been a long-standing relationship between the military and motorcycles, and in particular Harley-Davidson, as far back as anybody can remember," said Cat Wilson, marketing director for the bike maker's dealership in Pocasset. "There is a brotherhood, an automatic camaraderie (in riding) that you don't get anywhere else."

Across the country, veterans come together to ride, and often use the experience to advocate for their fellow vets or Gold Star families who have lost someone in combat.

On the Cape, veterans who have been inducted into the Massachusetts Fallen Heroes Memorial Riders — as well as associate members who might be civilians or other veterans trying to make the grade for membership — have taken up some of that mantle.

That combination of connection to other veterans and an outlet for frustrations can be essential when coming home, veteran Brian Abelli, a new member of the Fallen Heroes riders, said.

"No one will come back the same," he said. "My wife saw it in me. I see it."

Abelli, of Sandwich, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1997 to 2002, when an injury prevented his continued service with that branch.

Just a couple of weeks after returning home, he joined the Army National Guard and, as a staff sergeant, went to Afghanistan for 10 months.

He returned four months ago with a torn meniscus and a plan to purchase a motorcycle.

Riding solo was great, he said — but riding really became his passion when he hooked up with other veterans and got involved with the Fallen Heroes riders.

"When you have this amount of people willing to help you, it's an amazing feeling," Abelli said.

Don Florio, of West Dennis, who served in the U.S. Army after the Vietnam War, makes it his goal to welcome home as many veterans as he can.

"Serving's the easy part ... the battle begins when they come home. It sounds clichéd, but it's not," said Florio, who serves as the Cape group's chaplain.

Joining the Fallen Heroes riders requires a commitment to veterans that extends beyond one's self: Members ride together at least twice a week, attend meetings and participate in outreach and memorial rides.

And members strive to reach out to veterans who are struggling.

"I went to seven funerals this year (with the riding group), and four of them were suicides," Florio said.

So when the group learned a young Cape Marine who had earned two Purple Hearts was having suicidal thoughts, they hooked him up with riding lessons and a bike, then watched as the wind therapy kicked in.

"The class shook things up a little bit and put him right back into a better place," said Rick Sigel, owner of Training Wheels, the motorcycle school the young Marine attended. "None of us are psychologists, but we're humans, and we know that when you ride a motorcycle you do have to focus but it's fun at the same time."

On a recent day, under clouds that promised and finally delivered rain, five members of the Cape group gathered at Parkers River Beach in South Yarmouth, gearing up for a ride.

Abelli, on crutches after an operation on his knee just days earlier, followed along in his family's minivan.

Even in leather and layers, the riders were not really insulated against the wind and rain.

Goggles covered only so much of their faces and raindrops peppered the exposed areas, like tiny, stinging paintballs.

Goggles fogged up, fingers got stiff and leathers got soaked.

Bikers dream of those blue-sky days where they "feel the fresh air on their faces," Abelli said.

This wasn't one of them.

"This is just about the worst to ride in," said David McNeaney, of West Dennis. McNeaney, who has not served in the military, has applied to be an associate member of the Fallen Heroes riders. His wife, Lee, who often rides on the back of the bike, chose to follow along in her Jeep behind Abelli.

There are rules for riding in less-than-perfect weather — no wet leaves, no ice and no snow — but otherwise, they're out here.

"Nobody here puts their bikes away," Florio said, even as his — a 1977 Honda Shadow, an elder among his co-conspirators' gleaming Harley-Davidsons and Kawasakis — sputtered when water hit its engine.

Bad to the bone? More like chilled to the bone.

But through the whipping wind and rain, the riders' faces were exhilarated, their talk excited about their missions: first, a visit to the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Hyannis for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the president's assassination, followed by a trip to a Falmouth horse farm to explore whether horseback riding, like motorcycle riding, could help some of the Cape's veterans.

By the end of the day, six hours after taking off from South Yarmouth, the riders were no longer focusing on the temperature, but on the connections they had made to a struggling former firefighter with post-traumatic stress disorder they met at the farm and whom they invited to ride with them — and to each other.

"This is why we ride," McNeaney said.

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