CROWN POINT — On a recent warm, sunny Sunday, while people relaxed on the water at nearby Lemon Lake and enjoyed the fun at Cedar Lake Summerfest, a garage on the edge of Crown Point was alive with about 20 men there for a form of therapy.
There were no psychologists or medical professionals. No couch to lean back on. No circle of chairs or the formalities of a 12-step program. Just “Hot Rod Therapy.” And it’s helping a number of veterans in a way that the health care system cannot.
Operation Combat Bikesaver is in its fifth year of operation, and as founder Jason Zaideman had hoped, it’s expanding to other parts of the country. A chapter opened in Tallassee, Alabama, in early June and another in Stockton, California, later that month. It was in August 2017 that word of the program spread after Mike Rowe paid a visit to the garage to feature it and Zaideman on his web show, "Returning the Favor."
The project begun in Zaideman’s garage offered veterans a distraction and a purpose as they worked together to build a customized motorcycle while learning hands-on skills. It also gave them something that is lacking when a member of the military returns to home after a deployment: close contact with someone who’s been there and can relate.
The program is all volunteer-run, from those who take care of parts to those who do paperwork and fill T-shirt orders to those who drop off donated items for lunch.
'Here more for the brotherhood'
For Jason Ohearn, 34, of Cedar Lake, it’s a place where walls come down. “We keep it light and make sure everyone is in good spirits. It’s that missing piece of the military experience that we all miss,” Ohearn said.
For him, that's the best part of these “therapy sessions.” “The camaraderie we have, we can talk to each other the way we do in the military. If we did that in real life, we’d be fired or in trouble. Here we can speak our own language. You don’t find that in the civilian world at all.”
Though he enjoys working on bikes and getting his hands dirty, “I’m here more for the brotherhood and camaraderie,” he said. “The projects are here to help me escape my own issues, but there’s also that brotherhood.”
The projects are called “bike builds,” and participants are “gear heads.” To get involved, veterans complete an online application. Once vetted and welcomed into the program, they must put in a minimum of 40 hours before they can begin to work on a bike of their own.
Each Sunday the shop is open and about 20 to 30 veterans are usually there. If they’re not working on a bike of their own, they’re helping someone else build theirs, taking care of other tasks to keep the place running or just lending an ear and some friendship to someone who has walked a similar path.
The program is aimed at those who have suffered long-lasting and life-altering effects of their service. Some have physical and visible injuries. Others carry the wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, depression and anxiety.
Some have mechanical experience and are drawn to that part of Operation Combat Bikesaver. Others have needed a nudge to join the program.
'Everybody here becomes your family'
Brian Snyder, 34, of DeMotte, hadn’t heard of Operation Combat Bikesaver when he went there for the first time. His wife, Jaime, had learned about the program through Mike Rowe’s show and told her husband she wanted him to go somewhere and meet some people. He had some mechanical experience working on and driving race cars. The car he had spent a lot of time and money on had just been destroyed and he was feeling “down and out.”
“She didn’t tell me what was going on and she had filled out the application for me online,” Snyder said of his wife.
It's something he probably wouldn't have done on his own.
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“I’m not sure about how it is for other veterans, but I don’t like to ask for help. At first I was like, ‘I’m not here for therapy. I’m here to help them and help teach them some things.' I thought I was going to be part of the solution. I didn’t realize I was getting therapy from it, as well,” he said. “You come here and don’t realize you’re being part of something that is so therapeutic.”
For the dad of four — two teenagers, a toddler and a baby — Sundays are his time. He also often spends time at Operation Combat Bikesaver during the week, tending to a number of things. His injury caused him to be medically retired from the military, and Operation Combat Bikesaver has become his job. He puts in 40 or 50 hours some weeks.
Just 20 when he enlisted in 2005, he spent his 21st birthday in training to be an Army combat medic and was deployed to Iraq. He was serving in a little town outside of Baghdad in 2007 when a surge began, led by a dump truck full of explosives driven by a suicide bomber.
“I went out to evaluate casualties and work on them and bring them in. On the third time out, I looked up and another truck was coming down the road,” he said.
Snyder was struck in the back of the head with a sandbag and hit by shrapnel in his arms and legs. His eardrums were blown out, and he suffered a brain injury.
“They didn’t want us to establish a foothold there and were trying to overrun the place,” he said. “About 60 on foot were trying to rush the compound.”
Snyder and another medic were able to get the troops to safety and tend to their wounds. There were no American deaths, but 11 Americans were wounded, said Snyder; 11 Iraqis were killed.
He didn’t realized he was hurt until after he an evacuation. He knew he couldn’t hear well, but he also wasn’t making sense, he screamed to others because he couldn’t hear and he was dizzy. The dizziness still affects him.
The scenario is one that civilians can’t comprehend, and that’s why it's so important to be around others who get it, he said.
“When I come here, nothing feels like work. I can put in a 12-hour day here and go home and be in a good mood. Or I can come in here in a bad mood and be in a good mood when I leave,” Snyder said. “I was really leery initially, but everybody here becomes your family and it’s a slow, creeping thing. You can’t show up once and expect everything to be better with you. Part of it is showing up, and it hits you one day when you’re sitting at home on a Thursday and you can’t wait to go in on a Sunday that you realize that you’re getting something out of this.”
'Having a sense of purpose'
Jason Gootee, 37, of Lowell, is director of intake with the organization and is responsible for screening applicants. He also does some of its social media and he’s serving as president while Zaideman is on leave.
In his full-time job as a veteran service officer, he works for Lake County and helps veterans access disability and other benefits. He got involved with Operation Combat Bikesaver a little more than two years ago after learning about it from a colleague while doing training for work at Camp Atterbury, an Indiana National Guard facility in the south-central part of the state.
Though he didn’t do a specific build project, he received a bike donated by a Vietnam veteran in honor of his buddy.
“I took myself off the candidacy build list because I thought someone else needed it more than I did,” Gootee said. “That’s how I got into intake coordination and doing social media.
“I’ve had family tell me they’ve noticed a difference from where I was two years ago," he said. “I think it’s about having a sense of purpose, the camaraderie, knowing that we’re tight-knit enough that I can call someone at 2 o'clock in the morning and they’re going to be there for me. Coming out here on a Sunday and seeing the fruits of your labor is a big thing for me, but I like knowing this organization is doing something the Veterans Administration isn’t as far a therapy.”
For more information on the organization, visit combatbikesaver.org.