Hogs for Heroes gives veterans the gift of ‘wind therapy’
By Kat Halfman
GREEN BAY – Hogs for Heroes gifted a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and a trike to two honorably discharged veterans Sunday, July 24.
Kevin Thompson started Hogs for Heroes with his wife Audra, brother Craig and his wife Michelle in 2015, inspired by their own love for Harleys and their fathers’ service.
Originally, they planned to gift one motorcycle per year, but as community support grew, so did their funding.
Now in year six, they are proud to have gifted motorcycles to 29 Wisconsin veterans.
Thompson’s interest in using motorcycles as a tool for veterans’ healing started when he read “Unsung Heroes,” an article in The Enthusiast, Harley-Davidson’s magazine.
The article discussed some of the biggest problems vets face when returning to civilian life – rediscovering a sense of community after a life-changing experience, feeling unable to find either excitement or peace and not feeling in control.
According to the article, motorcycles give vets access to all of these things.
“You miss out on the camaraderie of other veterans and that sense of a group in the community,” Thompson said. “And then there’s also a need or a desire for excitement. Motorcycling delivered that, and also there’s this sort of a peace and calm that many get while riding – you know, you’re out in the country and you’re in control of your motorcycle and you’re just kind of away from things.”
Thompson said veteran motorcycle clubs, like Legion Riders and the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association (CVMA), provide veterans with the camaraderie of shared experience, the thrill of going fast on the open road, the feeling of being fully in control of the bike and the ability to have a clear, peaceful mind.
“One of the larger issues facing vets is that they just don’t feel connected to society, based on what they’ve gone through, and they’re sort of like, ‘People just don’t get me, they don’t understand me,’” he said.
Thompson said joining a group with a shared history of military service and a shared passion for riding helps rebuild that sense of identity.
“There’s lots of motorcycle groups out there, you know, and not the kind of motorcycle clubs that are on television, but really good groups where vets can get together,” he said.
A long road
Kevin Kuhn, from Abrams, Wisconsin, grew up with a strong sense of faith and responsibility, and knew from a young age that he would serve his country. He enlisted in high school, and got his first motorcycle shortly after boot camp. He rode it until he blew out the engine, and then shortly after he was deployed to Kuwait.
Kuhn and his unit were tasked with building a base from nothing in Afghanistan, and he developed hypervigilance to survive working on the front.
He also began to develop a degenerative back disease from operating heavy equipment and working long construction hours, and sand exposure caused him to start having migraines, from which he still suffers.
When he returned from his first deployment at age 21, he bought another bike – his first Harley – which he said “truly eased the chaos in my mind.”
Four years later, suffering from alcoholism, he was again deployed to Afghanistan, where the sand damaged his sinuses, inflicting sleep apnea and chronic sinusitis.
Kuhn said he lived through more than 170 explosive events in his second deployment, which did undeniable damage to his body and mind.
After a year in Afghanistan, Kuhn returned home and struggled to come to terms with the toll his service took.
He attempted to return to civilian life, but couldn’t focus on school. His mood swings began to scare his family.
He bottled it up in fear of the stigma or potential military discharge, which only made his symptoms worse.
In 2018, Kuhn received his third deployment assignment, but the Medical Review Board found that injuries to his back and ankle, as well his depression, made him medically ineligible to serve.
According to Hogs for Heroes, this news devastated him, and he dove into work and school in order to provide for his family.
By then his bike was nine years old, and he found himself limiting his miles and event participation as repairs grew more difficult and expensive.
Without a functioning bike, he would lose his community – CVMA – and that’s where Hogs for Heroes comes in.
To qualify for the Hogs for Heroes selection process, there are four criteria: you must have served in the military in some capacity and been honorably discharged; you must have a service-related injury (mental or physical); a passion for motorcycles; and you must be unable to afford a new bike yourself.
The application process opens in late winter/early spring every year, and an advisory board reviews the applications and selects the recipient.
The recipient gets to go shopping and pick the bike out themselves, because according to Thompson, a motorcycle is deeply personal.
Thompson said the motorcycles are gifted publicly for the benefit of the community, particularly those who have donated.
The public gifting allows the community to see exactly where their money has gone, ensuring total transparency.
“My wife and I cover the cost of running Hogs for Heroes ourselves. None of the donated money goes to the functions of the nonprofit,” Thompson said.
According to Thompson, recipients of the bikes often have different responses to the amount of gratitude and recognition that comes from the crowd.
“Some say thank you, some choke up… Kevin’s a very humble guy, so he came at it struggling to feel worthy and deserving, but he was able to thank his family and the community for their support,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotions – Kevin told me several times, ‘I don’t deserve this,’ and I said, ‘We make that decision, not you.’”
A new twist
This year, Hogs for Heroes did something it has never done before – besides gifting a bike to Kuhn, they surprised 61-year-old veteran Kevin Ropson with a three-wheeled Harley, which will allow him to continue riding even as his back and arthritis worsen.
In Ropson’s application, he said he’s been riding since he was 18.
“That’s 43 years of wind therapy. I rode while I was at boot camp, in between deployments, and while at home. I rode in wind, rain, snow and sun. My bike is my refuge; it’s my place and my release. I’ve had many bikes through the years. Unfortunately, I’m 61, my back is getting worse and I’m having trouble keeping it up when I stop, getting the kickstand up and backing it up.”
He said he knows his two-wheeled days are numbered, but he doesn’t have the means to handle another payment.
“I can not imagine my life without my much needed wind therapy in it,” he said.
The Hogs for Heroes team worked with Ropson’s wife to buy a three-wheeled bike that fit his wants and needs, and on Sunday, after Kuhn received his bike, Ropson was surprised with the gift of a lifetime.