They came to ride mountain bikes in Central Texas last Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Most of the 16 riders had never met, but all had suffered grievous combat injuries, traveled difficult paths to recovery, and demonstrated incredible character. These Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans rode in the Bush Institute's fourth annual W100K, hosted by former President George W. Bush to honor wounded warriors and draw attention to groups promoting physical activity as a vital aid to their healing.
One of them was Staff Sgt. Spencer Milo. During a firefight in Iraq in 2007, he was manning a .50 caliber machine gun when his Humvee collided with two trucks. He hit his head. The medics said he'd had a concussion, told him to drink more water, and sent him back to war.
But the headaches and pain persisted. Once stateside, he went for tests and was told his injury had caused a mass in his brain—and he had six months to live. Seven months later, he got another opinion. Though he'd suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the mass was treatable. He wasn't dying.
So Spencer deployed to Afghanistan. On Jan. 19, 2011, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-laden vest 8 feet away. Blown 15 feet through the air, Spencer charged back into the smoke to drag a wounded comrade to safety, meanwhile returning fire. Riddled with shrapnel to his entire left side and face, he lost his hearing in his right ear and most in his left, and fractured three discs in his back. He would have died except the bomber put his vest on incorrectly, so its explosive force blew inward, not outward.
Spencer was treated for half a year at Fort Bragg's Womack Army Medical Center, then for a month at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed. Now medically retired, he lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and daughter. He serves as a Veteran Transition Specialist for Hire Heroes USA, helping comrades re-enter civilian life.
Having a job when he retired meant Spencer could afford his medications while the Veterans Administration took half a year to process his paperwork. But many vets are unemployed and can't pay, and some preferred drugs are not in the VA's formulary. Spencer will do anything to change this: He lost six comrades in Iraq and Afghanistan and four to suicide since returning home.
Sgt. Josh Hansen owned a motorcycle repair business. But after 9/11 and at age 30, he joined the Army. His first Iraq tour was 2004-05. He volunteered to return in 2006 as an Improvised Explosive Device hunter, clearing the way for Marines in Fallujah. His vehicle was pummeled by eight direct IED hits over seven months. On March 15, 2007, it was hit by two IEDs, one after another, and he was medevaced out with a busted-up back and TBI.
His injury gave him problems with short-term memory and required him to retrain his brain to handle even simple tasks. But as his TBI got better, his Post Traumatic Stress got worse. He couldn't handle crowds or even taking the kids to McDonald's. Driving by trash bags brought back memories of IEDs. He became a near recluse, estranged from family and friends.
Josh's wife, Melissa, pushed him sometimes and supported him always. Then Wasatch Adaptive Sports—a Utah nonprofit that offers recreational therapy for veterans—offered to teach him to ski. In vigorous physical activity, he found peace and a tool to help overcome his Post Traumatic Stress. Now he works for Wasatch, helping other vets use skiing, snowboarding, fishing, biking and other activities to find their way back.
Spencer and Josh and their comrades strongly dislike the word "disorder" in "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," believing it stigmatizes an injury, discourages veterans from seeking help, and closes doors in the civilian world. They're right.
Their stories are deeply moving. The veterans radiate an incandescent spirit—the product, perhaps, of overcoming incredible obstacles and living honorable, meaningful lives.
After dinner Friday in the Bush's Prairie Chapel ranch home, a local music group sang gospel tunes. The chorus in one of their songs—"Even in the darkness you can see the light"—drew upon Psalm 139.
The W100K riders have been through darkness. Yet for three days last week, they rode in the bright sunlight of late spring days, celebrating lives of service and comrades-in-arms with a former commander in chief who loves and cherishes them. It was an honor to be among them.
A version of this article appeared May 8, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Injuries Can't Keep These Warriors Down and online at WSJ.com.