An average of 20 military veterans commit suicide each day. There are a lot of contributing factors. For one, integrating back into civilian life can be a challenge. Veterans suddenly find themselves in a situation with which no one can relate.
Jason Zaideman wanted to change that and in October 2015 founded Operation Combat Bikesaver. An Army engineer who served from 1996-2004, he wanted to provide a space where veterans could gather and let their guard down, enjoy a camaraderie like they had known while serving and learn a skill.
Zaideman considers the organization and its mission a form of therapy and mental maintenance, one that can help participants deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression common among veterans. He calls it “hot rod therapy.” That space is a shop in Crown Point that is open on Sundays to introduce vets to building, fabricating, welding, and painting. Ultimately, the goal is for each interested veteran to create a custom motorcycle. The program is free to veterans.
However, with only so much space and so many materials, there’s a waiting list. Those on the list who show up work on teams with those building bikes or do individual projects of “hot rod art,” such as tables, lamps or coat racks using various scraps available in the shop. It’s much more about the process than the finished product. While they're building bikes, the vets also are building relationships and coping skills.
The building of a bike is somewhat of a metaphor for the transformation of those who spend time there. Scrap or recycled materials — something that had been damaged, forgotten or perceived to have lost its value — are used to create something similar yet different and often much improved.
Zaideman said he realized he would get lost mentally while working on his own motorcycle in his garage. “I’d dissect my whole life while I was working on it and I thought ‘why wouldn’t this work for a nonprofit organization as therapy?’ ”
In his full-time job, he runs a business that organizes fundraisers. “In that community, I see a lot of organizations that raise awareness. There’s plenty of organizations spreading awareness, but there are not enough organizations doing something about it,” he said. “I’m a solution-finder and a doer and not one to sit around and talk, so within a couple weeks I started an organization that was doing something by offering this therapy once a week.”
Each week the number of participants varies, often around 60 to 70. Many are in their 20s and 30s, though veterans of all ages are welcome. Volunteers provide meals and the vets spend a day working in the shop together.
“They re-establish that camaraderie that they don’t get in their everyday lives,” said Zaideman. “The key is to keep them busy and distracted from problems and memories. It’s like a vacation from your trauma or whatever is deep in your mind. You’re going to forget it. It might be a bankruptcy or a divorce, and this can really dilute those feelings."
Zaideman hopes to eventually make the shop accessible to veterans 24/7. “We want to make it available if they need to get away from a toxic environment,” he said. “Our plan is to make it a place to come so that if you have to get away, you have an exit strategy. You can hang out and talk about problems and calm each other down.”
He also plans to open additional branches across the country with the next location opening in Alabama, where he said about 28 veterans commit suicide a day. He’s also looking to move the Crown Point the headquarters to a larger space to help more veterans.
The nonprofit got a boost last year in August when television personality Mike Rowe made a surprise visit to tape an episode of his online series “Returning the Favor.” Rowe brought along equipment, including a motorcycle lift, tire machine and plasma cutter and funds to cover rent for a year.
Operation Combat Bikesaver sells apparel and merchandise to benefit the organization at combatbkesaver.org. It also accepts donations there.