Back in 2009 I found myself agreeing to ride a motorcycle along Route 66 in order to raise funds for British military charities. Little did I realise that the journey was to become the start of a life-changing experience; more on that to follow.
Eight years earlier, as everyone will remember, on September 11th 2001, (‘9/11’) Islamic fundamentalist terrorists hijacked four aircraft and crashed two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, one into the Pentagon and the fourth went down in open countryside after control was taken back by the brave but doomed passengers. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, the vast majority of them in and around the twin towers. I can remember my own shock as the TV footage rolled onto the screens of the grim hotel I was staying in at Crystal Palace. The inconceivable had just happened. The terrorists were followers of Osama Bin Laden, at that time based in Afghanistan, where the fundamentalist Taliban regime had been in power for many years.
Within three months of 9/11 a US-led allied force had invaded Afghanistan, taken the capital Kabul and overthrown the Taliban. But what initially seemed to be an easy ‘victory’ turned into a long drawn-out conflict in which the Taliban turned to guerrilla tactics and have never been defeated. Then in 2003 Iraq was invaded on the ill-founded grounds of ‘the dossier’ which claimed, that Iraq’s despotic leader Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Saddam was overthrown and executed but Iraq was wrecked and has been in turmoil ever since.
By 2010 there was a heightened public awareness developing of the consequences of war. The community of Wootton Bassett, the first British town that the repatriated dead travelled through on their journey from RAF Lyneham to their final resting place, stood silent to pay their respects at the roadside. This simple but powerful act led to the town receiving royal patronage, (the first bestowed by HM Queen Elizabeth II during her reign), and being renamed Royal Wootton Bassett. What was also becoming apparent was the number of wounded servicemen returning, many missing limbs blown off by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and even more suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this period there were many charities formed to support and assist them. Some are still with us today and others have fallen by the wayside as people move on and priorities change.
Darren Clover of Blue Cucumber Tours founded Bike Tours For The Wounded, and in 2010 he asked me if I would consider taking a wounded passenger on the back of a Harley-Davidson along Route 1, up the west coast of the USA between San Diego and Seattle. I agreed and joined five other riders. The aim was to support the wounded by offering life-changing journeys on the pillion seat, but Darren had to convince the military powers-that-be that it would be practical, and that they would not be risking hindering their recovery given that many were still only a few months from their traumatic amputations. I can remember the many trips that Darren made to Headley Court the well-known recuperation centre, to demonstrate that the trips would be carefully managed. After many months, permission was given to take the first cohort of wounded service personnel to America.
I remember that first trip all too clearly. To be honest, it was like all firsts – there was a lot of learning to do and none of it was easy. My pillion for that trip was a lady called Elaine. She was a tank engineer who had lost her leg in a motorcycle accident. I first met Elaine at Headley Court, where she was being cared for. On the plane to the USA I sat next to my now good friend Ben Hilton. Ben had lost both legs; the first from an IED, the second soon after while being stretchered out. Ben admitted to being slightly nervous about the trip. I pointed out that, as a Guard and a passionate horseman, he could be reassured that the ‘iron horse’ at least did not come equipped with a mind of its own or bucking tendencies.
Once out on the road, it took a few days to settle into a routine. Our back-up van had to time its arrivals precisely to ensure wheelchair users were not left high and dry on the pillion seat. There were certainly some tensions as long days of riding often included congested freeways and heat. However, we all returned from that first trip in one piece and since then more than three hundred wounded, injured and sick (WIS) military personnel have benefitted from the tours. A by-product of the trips has been a rich community of riders who have continued to offer extended support and friendship to this group of people to whom we owe so much for our freedom and security.
In 2021 I shall be returning for the tenth anniversary tour: eight states in eight days. Accompanying me will be Claire Edwards, a 20 year Army Veteran who also served in Iraq during this dangerous period. Her medical discharge due to injuries she sustained has meant a huge change in her life but it has not stopped her looking for ways to keep enjoying the things she always did. We previously rode together on my third trip with the wounded. She is both a friend and a truly impressive woman, who has overcome her injuries. Claire is the veterans liaison officer and committee member in her home town of Hull.
What are we doing this trip for? Well, it’s to tell the story, raise the profile of the WIS community, so important as the world moves on; and above all to raise funds to support the future of this organisation so that many more WIS may benefit.
I have set up an everyday hero page https://give.everydayhero.com/uk/10th-anniversary-tour. All monies raised will go to Bike Tours For The Wounded (BTFTW) to support trips for the wounded, injured and sick. Your support would be greatly appreciated.
By Carla McKenzie