For Jon Harmon, riding a motorcycle has always been sweet release.
Harmon lost his legs when a hidden improvised explosive device detonated while he was on his first Army deployment in Afghanistan four years ago. Since then, riding his Harley Davidson has become especially important.
“The biggest thing for riding my Harley is it’s very, very freeing,” explained Harmon, 23, who lived with his family in Cedarville before joining the Army in 2011, shortly after graduating from Surprise Valley High School.
“Your world gets a little more limited,” he said of losing his legs. “Bikes are a really good way to get out, to get the wind in your face, to get that adrenaline kick again. A lot of combat vets are looking for that ‘rush.’ “
Harmon was in Klamath Falls last week visiting his mother, Sue Harmon, and sister, Lauren, who graduated from Klamath Union High School. Harmon and his wife, Marisol “Mars,” also 23, who was born and raised in Surprise Valley, live in Gaithersburg, Md., outside of Washington, D.C.
Despite being 100 percent disabled, he remains on active duty as an Army sergeant working as an intermediary for wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
“I love it,” Harmon said of his work. “It’s an extremely satisfying job.”
2012 foot patrol
Walter Reed was just one of his medical stops after the June 12, 2012, incident that cost him his legs. Then 19, he was on foot patrol as a member of B Troop, 4/73 Cavalry, a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division, in the Maiwand District in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Valley when an IED exploded, tearing apart his right leg and seriously injuring his left leg.
After emergency surgery in Afghanistan, he was transferred to Germany where surgeons removed his badly damaged remaining leg.
“Lopping that baby (leg) off and moving on with life was one of the best things I’ve done,” he said.
A month later, Harmon was at Walter Reed, where he spent nearly two years recovering and learning to walk on his prosthetic legs.
It was at Walter Reed he experienced a major turning point when, during a conversation with a member of the hospital’s medical staff, Harmon learned the person was also a double amputee.
“Keep moving on with life or live in a box,” he believes.
That philosophy is why Harmon and a friend, Tom Busche, began efforts last year to create the Veterans Enhancement Project, or VEP. The nonprofit, which has been officially operating since earlier this year, has a goal of providing customized, adaptive motorcycles for disabled veterans.
“Riding a bike is so medicinal. Riding is very freeing,” Harmon said of the benefits, noting many veterans — including him — find that riding a motorcycle is therapeutic.
Bikes for injured vets
After modifying his own Harley at a cost of nearly $8,000, he and Busche decided to create an organization devoted to providing modified bikes for injured veterans at no cost. Busche serves as the nonprofit’s CEO and Harmon as its vice president. Both are volunteers who receive no salaries. Harmon will remain in the Army another 18 months and then, he hopes, work full-time with VEP.
He said VEP is modifying its third bike and has eight others “stacked up.” The group has received a $20,000 anonymous donation and is working to receive other grants. Depending on the specific modifications, the cost can range from about $10,000 to upwards of $20,000 for more complicated adaptations, more than many veterans can afford.
“We’re trying to get our name out there,” Harmon said of VEP, noting the group hopes to attract enough corporate sponsors “so we don’t have to run around looking for grants” and have enough funding to modify 12 to 15 motorcycles a year. Plans also include having interested veterans learn basic or, if willing, more advance motorcycle repair skills.
“This will put them on the path to developing a skilled trade. They will be able to fix things on their own. If they choose, they will be able to help fix up bikes for others in need,” Harmon said. “A lot of veterans find solace in machinery.”
His Harley is a trike — with one front and two back wheels — and, because he has prosthetic legs, is fully operable by hand devices. “I’m completely, fully functional with my handlebars.”
Focus on the positive
Harmon believes, too, little focus is placed on positive achievements from veterans. He said revelations about the high-profile Wounded Warrior program and its alleged misuse of funds has put other legitimate veterans programs under scrutiny.
“People are more leery about donating to veterans’ nonprofits,” he said. “I always try to promote the positive things vets are doing.”
Harmon believes combat veterans, especially wounded veterans, face challenges readjusting to civilian life when they return from overseas assignments. The suicide rate related to post traumatic stress is up, up to 22 a day.
“It took me at least six months to calm down,” Harmon remembers. “I’d be on edge all the time.”
Some of the calming comes from riding his Harley, some from being open about his injuries — “I find by talking about it, it takes a load off your mind.”
Likewise, he doesn’t disguise his injuries.
“I wear shorts all year-around,” Harmon said. “Because this is what war looks like.”