4-wheelin' provides active therapy for wounded warriors

  • Published
  • By Val Gempis
  • Air Force News Service
Airmen from the Washington area have found a unique way to help wounded warriors, one that takes them out of the daily grind, far removed from their normal surroundings.

Tucked away in the backwoods of northwest Virginia, about 90 miles from Washington, a non-profit organization called "4 wheel to heal" provides wounded warriors with an outdoor experience ranging from crawling through the mud to riding four-wheelers across rugged terrain, camping and firing weapons on the range.

"The goal of our organization is to help boost morale for these wounded veterans and give them an experience they'll never forget," said Tech. Sgt. Nathan Ramos, a co-founder of the organization. He is also an Air National Guard airman with the 113th Air Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Md.

Ramos said that he and three other service members created the organization, originally for those who enjoy four-wheeling, but quickly changed after a visit to see wounded warriors at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Md.

"I deployed to Iraq in 2003, and although I came back unharmed, I understand what these wounded warriors are going through," said Ramos. The group founded the "4-wheel to heal" program in July of 2011, and has taken wounded warriors on several trips to the Gore, Va., site.

Army Sgt. James Nicholson is one of those warriors assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Bethesda. He lost a leg during a deployment to Iraq in 2009. "This is a great relief from the everyday grind," said Nicholson. He said that he didn't know what to expect during his first visit, but knew he didn't want to sit around the house and do nothing.

Nicholson said that he discovered the organization provided more than just a place to "hang out," it also provided a sense of family. "The best part of this place is the camaraderie. You're with people who know what you're going through, and they know how to talk to you and be around you. You don't have to explain anything to them."

Nicholson's wife, Dennise, say she needs no explanation about why or how "4 wheel to heal" has helped her husband. She said that after accompanying him on his first trip, she could immediately see the benefit in his attitude. "He was so excited to do it again, and all he talked about was preparing and buying equipment for the next trip."

And while Denisse doesn't understand the excitement about crawling and driving over rocky terrain, she likes seeing her husband let loose. "It's a nice getaway for him and he's truly happy and relaxed here."

For many of the competitors, relaxing didn't quite fit their experiences. Mud bugging was a competition where vehicles or rigs are driven through a pit of mud. Called "big dogs off-road," it began just after nightfall with the sounds of more than 300 people screaming and the roar of rigs and buggies engines revving. Throughout the night, vehicles jammed in the mud, often slamming into the pits at full speed.

Staff Sgt. John Purser, also assigned to the 113th AW, is the president of the organization and believes that driving the rigs through the rough terrain and rocks is not the only reason these wounded warriors enjoy their visits here. "It's really special when you sit around the campfire at night and listen to these warriors open up about their experiences that they normally wouldn't talk to people about. Their stories are inspirational and it raises all of our spirits."