BRATTLEBORO — The sun could not have shined any brighter for bikers who travelled 64.4 miles during the 7th Annual Ride for Heroes event, whichraised $43,000, according to Robert Szpila, Development Officer at the Brattleboro Retreat.

The Retreat hosted the event on Saturday, Aug. 20, which raises money to support the its Uniformed Service Program. USP offers specialized trauma and addiction treatment for people who are, or have been, active military, police officers, fire fighters, veterans, EMS or corrections personnel. Given the tasks of a professional in uniform, they are more likely to have witnessed or experienced life-threatening events and human tragedies that can lead to a serious stress disorder and other duty-related issues with alcohol and drug addiction, anxiety and depression.

"There is no question in my mind that the Uniformed Service Program saved my life," said Sgt. Rich LaBard, of the Great Falls Police Department in Montana. "It not only allowed me to continue on with my career, it helped me rebuild my marriage, and it gave me back who I was. For so many years I stopped being who I was and I was only what I was, and that was a police officer."

The escorted ride began at 10 a.m. and took bikers from the Brattleboro Retreat on Route 30, through the towns of Williamsville, West Dover, Wardsboro, Townshend, and Newfane and back.

While the motorcycle ride included scenic views of mountains, rivers, valleys and historic towns, the sole purpose was to support the program.


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"There is a large number of motorcycle riders who understand this and want to do something, so we're trying to raise money for the Uniformed Service Program, therefore we want to go where there are people willing to support it, and motorcycle riders do," said Szpila.

The program is unique in that it does not just include group sit-down talks. Ryan Heck, a mental health worker at the USP, said he helps with a wellness program, which includes therapeutic fly fishing and other outdoor recreational activities.

"All of that is just working on being engaged in the present moment, mentally and physically, doing our intentional action," said Heck, of how fly fishing can help a person with his or her mental health. "So often we can physically be somewhere, but mentally we can be thinking of a hundred different things."

Heck said the action of casting a fishing line and reading the water allows an individual to be mentally engaged, whereas if it is just a physical focus, one might get hooked on trees or even themselves.

According to Dr. Susan Balaban, psychologist and manager of USP, the program is very structured, includes a lot of peer support and is focused on helping people to identify what they are struggling with and what they're looking to get out of treatment. The program helps them move forward in terms of healing and recovery and helps them identify what they would like their life to look like.

(Maddi Shaw — Brattleboro Reformer)

"Particularly with this group of people, it's hard to talk about feelings, uncomfortable feelings or feeling vulnerable in any way," said Balaban. "So usually it will show up in irritability, angry outbursts or sort of unhealthy ways of checking-out like alcohol use, substance use, but even things you wouldn't even recognize, like working extra hours and isolating more and more."

Balaban added that there are usually mental health issues that precede thinking about suicide such as depression, post traumatic stress disorder or high levels of stress,

"A person doesn't just get to that point," said Balaban.

Dr. Louis Josephson, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Brattleboro Retreat, attended his first Ride for Heroes event and tipped his hat to the work that has been done through the USP at the Retreat.

"Our Uniformed Service Program here at the Retreat is probably one of the programs I am most proud of," said Josephson. "I just feel as mental health professionals this is something we can do to give back to the community."

When riders returned from the 64.4 mile trek, they enjoyed the rest of the afternoon with music, vendors, raffles and prizes with many items donated by local businesses. They also had the chance to have their bikes "blessed" by Father Justin Bake of St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church in Brattleboro.

This was the third year the Ride for Heroes organizers encouraged participants to raise additional funds for the Uniformed Service Program as "Ride Champions." Ride Champions raised $100 or more and in turn received complimentary registration, prizes and giveaways.

Balaban said if someone would like to learn more about the USP, they can call admissions at 1-800-RETREAT or Balaban directly at 802-258-6148.

Major sponsors for this event included Platinum Sponsors Communicators Group, Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, The Richards Group, and Sodexo, as well as Gold Sponsors Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks #1499, Brattleboro Pharmacy, Chroma Technology, Dr. Drew Pate and Dr. Tess Carpenter, G. S. Precision, GPI Construction, Monadnock Harley-Davidson, and WKVT.

For those interested in fundraising as a Ride Champion, more information can be found at www.brattlebororetreat.org/rideforheroes.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275