BEDFORD, Texas — Freedom Fest at the largest Harley Davidson dealership in Texas is a chance for motorcycle enthusiasts and American patriots to gather under one roof. They celebrate with music, hot dogs and a heavy dose of red, white, and blue.
But on Thursday at Texas Harley Davidson in Bedford, it was much more: a chance for veterans to keep helping each other exorcise their demons and look forward to a future of promising open roads.
The event was a fundraiser for 22Kill, a Dallas veterans assistance organization that is dedicated to fighting the staggering statistic of an estimated 22 veteran suicides in the United States each day.
"I've been to more funerals since I've been to Dallas than I've been to my entire life," Marine veteran and 22Kill member Joe Stazione said. "If that puts anything into perspective for you."
"Down here every day is Independence Day. Every day is Memorial Day. Every day is Veterans Day," added 22Kill program director and Marine veteran Jimmy Mac. "We're thrown into this. We live this. This is our life."
Their lives, dedicated to helping veterans battle Post Traumatic Stress and the difficulties of adjusting back into civilian life, also include the counseling that can happen on a bright, shiny and very loud Harley.
They call it, "Wind Therapy." On a motorcycle, to survive, you have to focus on the road ahead, not the painful path you might have already traveled.
"You're getting people who are concentrating on what's going on in front of them and lose what's going on in their head," Stazione said.
The program has trained more than 60 people to ride, and it's a program they are trying to expand across the country.
"So, to get people into this community where they can feel brotherhood and friendship and family is the most important part of it," Stazione said.
The Freedom Fest event at Texas Harley Davidson served as a fundraiser for the continued work of 22Kill and its variety of veteran-helping-veteran programs. For avid bikers, like Stazione and Mac, it also served as a chance to fight the negative stigma a biker vest and a few tattoos can sometimes bring.
"Don't judge a book by its cover," Mac said.
He and Stazione are also both members of the nationwide veteran biker group American Infidels which is dedicated to raising money for veterans and helping fellow warriors in need.
"I'm well aware of what I look like," Mac said, while motioning to the tattoos that cover both of his arms. "But don't judge a book by its cover. Because we give good hugs. And we're good people."
Good people, ready to help any veteran focus on the road and the life ahead while leaving their demons behind in a trail of dust.