February 29, 2012
Five years ago, I was just another motorcycle rider in a typical Army unit. Back then, the only motorcycle training available for my unit was the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Experienced RiderCourse. If you were new to riding and didn't have at least $250 to fork over for a beginner's course, your motorcycle education was relegated to barracks hearsay and listening to your friends' near-death experiences. Soldiers who wanted to try out riding waited for the weekends and rode bikes they'd purchased and hidden off post or borrowed from their friends. Too often they'd mix in dangerous ingredients like speed, lack of personal protective equipment and alcohol.
From top to bottom, the command turned a blind eye to this type of behavior. Their response was to have Soldiers sign a document saying if they died in a motorcycle crash and weren't licensed, trained or wearing their PPE, their Families would lose their survivor benefits. Most took that with a grain of salt -- just another threat rolling downhill.
As new Soldiers rotated in, more and more bikes began showing up in the barracks parking lot. Four bikes turned into 20 in the blink of an eye. Most riders had a good deal of experience and wore custom leather jackets or one-piece suits. Everything seemed to be on the level. They had post decals and PPE, so I assumed they were in compliance with the post's standards.
As the weeks passed, I noticed the "days since the last fatality" sign never made it much past 30. I wondered why so many "Joes" were losing their lives. I wasn't the only one who was concerned. My unit had recently transitioned from a company into a new battalion. Our new battalion commander let it be known that he wasn't going to allow his Soldiers to become statistics. We'd all heard this before and figured it meant more painful procedures and paperwork. You know, "Inspect the Soldiers twice as much -- that will cut the problems in half." I guess that's a theory they teach at West Point.
Our new commander called for a meeting of all motorcycle riders and any Soldiers interested in riding. We were to gather at the crack of dawn Friday morning at the post theater. Any Soldier who had a bike was ordered to bring it. That's when the rumors began to fly. One of the more ridiculous ones claimed that the new commander would "outlaw" motorcycles. Another rumor was he would have the MPs inspect every bike and, if any failed, the Soldier would be ticketed and forced to pay to have it hauled away. I didn't believe these rumors, but after you hear something so many times, you have to wonder if there isn't some truth involved. It was starting to get to me.
Friday finally came and I was sitting outside the theater with hundreds of other riders, all just as curious as I was. After a little while, I heard a single bike coming up the road and looked to see if I knew who it was. As the bike approached, I saw it was our new battalion commander. He had a nice anniversary edition Harley-Davidson Road King. It was weird because I never pictured him as a rider. After he came to a stop, he announced his reason for gathering everyone together and what the day's activities would be. He, along with other senior Leaders, would inspect the bikes and check riders' insurance and PPE to make sure everyone was "doing the right thing." After that, we would have some classes on motorcycle safety and maintenance and then there would be a prize given away. The final activity was a group ride to a local lake, where he released us for the weekend.
I have to admit I was shocked. This was the first time anyone higher than the first sergeant had showed an interest in the unit's riders. Rather than making threats, the battalion commander showed he had an interest in common with his Soldiers and used that as an opportunity to get to know them. He was willing to both do the right thing and show us what the right thing was. These meetings became a monthly ritual that made riding rewarding rather than punishing Soldiers who rode. Before long, our monthly motorcycle days caught on like a wildfire throughout the brigade and several local bike shops jumped in as sponsors.
After a while, I noticed guys out in the parking lot saying things like, "Take a class before you get on your bike" or "Take it easy, ride your ride." Something fundamental had changed in their mindset. Motorcycle training days were seen as a sign of respect rather than punishment, and no one wanted to mess that up.
Although the post sign rarely made it past the 30-day mark without a fatality, those fatalities no longer represented riders in our brigade. Our Leader had kept his word. He made sure we were Soldiers -- not statistics.
Units around the Army are finding the Motorcycle Mentorship Program a useful tool for keeping Soldiers from becoming statistics. For more information on the MMP, check out https://safety.army.mil/MMP/.