Dustin Blankenship is in pain when he walks, but not when he flies.
As he tears around the dirt track on his motorcycle, he is not slowed by his paralyzed left thigh. When his wheels leave the ground and he soars over a hill, he doesn’t think about the searing pain that usually shoots through his leg.
When he competes in motocross races, he is no longer the guy who can’t run, jump or ride a bicycle. He’s the military airman and athlete that he used to be. And he wants other military veterans, especially those who ache from physical and mental wounds suffered in combat zones, to have that same feeling.
“I realized that there was more to this than just pain mitigation,” Blankenship said. “I decided that I wanted to see if this helps other people.”
A year and a half ago, Blankenship, 36, and his brother, Cody, 38, established the Veteran Motocross Foundation — VetMX, for short — which administers “throttle therapy” for veterans who need it. The nonprofit teaches veterans the basics of motocross racing, the high-flying, off-road motorcycle competitions held on dirt tracks.
The Blankenships are Cave Spring High School graduates who each served in the military. Dustin was in the Air Force from 2001 until 2004, and Cody was in the Marines, which included a deployment to Afghanistan a month after the 9-11 attacks. The brothers live in Shawsville, where they built a motorcycle track on their property, partly for the purpose of helping military veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, have physical wounds, have lost limbs or who just want to ride fast.
Dustin Blankenship said clinical research has shown that competing in fast-paced sports such as motocross helps men and women who need new ways to channel their thrill-seeking, and potentially self-destructive, impulses.
“It’s not something radical we’ve come up with,” said Dustin, who works as an industrial engineer in Blacksburg. “There’s proof that riding a motorcycle helps people. It’s almost like you’re in a trance state on a motorcycle. It’s like meditation.”
Since creating the foundation, the brothers have welcomed more than 800 supporters, who donate time, money and gear for the riders. Dozens of veterans have participated in motocross clinics and races. The Blankenships started the Warrior Class, a competitive motocross division especially for former military members.
Some of the veterans who have signed up for VetMX events had motocross experience. Others had never been on a motorcycle before, such as Justin Ebelt, a 31-year-old veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division who served two deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He was later part of a global response force that went to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010.
“When you twist that throttle, and when the wind starts hitting you in the face, this euphoric feeling takes over you,” said Ebelt, who lives in Danville and has been diagnosed with PTSD.
When you’re on the bike, Ebelt said, “you’re not looking back. You’re looking ahead.”
Finding friends who are veterans
On a 39-degree Saturday morning under cloudless blue skies, nine riders participated in a VetMX clinic at Birch Creek Motorsports, a track just north of Danville.
Rusty Reynolds, owner of Triangle Cycles in Danville, provided motorcycles and gear for riders. Even if a veteran doesn’t have a motorcycle, helmet, protective padding or any of the necessary safety gear, VetMX will provide it. The track owners usually allow the foundation to use their facilities for free.
Sponsors donate bikes, helmets, protective padding and other gear. Some riders in Las Vegas, whom the Blankenships have never met, are holding a VetMX fundraiser this month.
VetMX offers a three-month training program that prepares riders for motocross racing. Beyond the competitions, veterans also learn how to improve their physical well-being, pain mitigation, personal relationships and their mental health.
“Guys are dealing with anxiety and stress,” said Cody Blankenship, a health care executive who is married and a father of two. “We want to see if their demeanor changes after a couple of hours on the bike. They’re out here in the dirt, outside, in nature. We want this to be different from what they’re used to.”
During the clinic, Reynolds went over some basic safety tips and riding fundamentals. Everybody there had been on a motorcycle before, and some had even raced as teenagers.
“I searched social media trying to find a group of guys who were service-related who raced,” said Jake Jordan, 22, a Navy veteran from Greensboro, North Carolina. “I’m an adrenaline junkie through and through, but this is the most relaxing thing.”
Not everybody who attends a VetMX event has served in a combat zone or has been diagnosed with post-service physical or emotional problems. Still, the pressure of having been in the military can be hard to shake.
“The army expects so much of you,” said Jeremy Underwood, 28, a veteran from Pasadena, Maryland, who attended the clinic. “During a time of war, you try to do everything right and perfect, it makes you tense and tight.”
Daniel Powell, 31, of Archdale, North Carolina, knows that feeling. He served five years with the Marines, including a stretch as a combat engineer in Afghanistan during the fight to defeat the Taliban in 2009 and 2010. His company cleared improvised explosive devices from roads. Even though he wasn’t wounded, he lost buddies who were killed in bombings.
“I gathered remains, burned clothes from guys who got killed,” Powell said.
He came to the VetMX clinic because he missed the camaraderie and fellowship of the Marines.
“I wanted to be around other people who had been in the service,” he said. “One thing I do miss about the Marines is the friends I had there. We were tight.”
Ebelt, the 82nd Airborne veteran who was deployed four times, had never ridden a motorcycle before learning about VetMX. Now, he is one of the foundation’s biggest advocates.
“I made the conscious decision to be all-in,” Ebelt said. “It’s given me a drive, a purpose, … something to look forward to.”
Ebelt said that he suffers from PTSD after enduring rocket attacks in Iraq. On one occasion, a rocket exploded 30 meters in front of him.
“The concussion rocked my head a little,” he said.
After returning to the United States, he said he had problems in his personal life, which included a divorce. Ebelt credits VetMX with helping him improve his relationship with his ex-wife and become a better parent to his son, who is also a motocross racer. The foundation motivated Ebelt to go to college and study business on the GI Bill. He now helps VetMX secure sponsors and other support.
Ebelt thinks about his buddies who came home from war with emotional wounds that never healed, the guys who suffered quietly until they killed themselves.
“Had there been a program like this, would it have changed things?” he said. “I probably shouldn’t think like that. But the question lingers.”
Racing past the pain
Dustin Blankenship had ridden fast and soared over dirt tracks years before — on a bicycle, not a motorcycle. He competed in BMX and was a distance runner and a general adrenaline addict.
His extreme sports days ended following a leg injury he sustained in 2011 while in the military. Blankenship’s left thigh was left partially paralyzed, and he suffers from complex regional pain syndrome — which means that his leg is in near constant pain.
Blankenship can walk, but he has difficulty with stairs. He can’t run, jog or pedal a bicycle. He used to ride horses on his Montgomery County property but can’t do so anymore because of the pain.
A year and a half after the surgery, when he realized the paralysis would be permanent, he entered what he called “a very self-destructive phase.”
Blankenship, who served Middle East tours in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is quick to point out that he has never been diagnosed with service-connected PTSD or any traumatic brain injury. His paralysis is described in his personnel file as a secondary-service connected injury. Blankenship, who is divorced, said he became reclusive following his injury. The daily mental grind of dealing with constant pain left him too exhausted to enjoy time with family and friends or even to watch his two daughters’ soccer games.
“He had depression,” said Uyen Nguyen, a close friend and VetMX board member. She added: “He wasn’t sleeping because of the pain. He knew he would have it the rest of his life. It was really hard to get over.”
Then, near the end of 2013, his brother bought a Kawasaki KDX 200 motorcycle to ride around the family’s property. As Dustin watched his brother Cody tearing through the fields where he used to ride horses, he thought, “I can do that.”
“I can putt around,” Dustin said. “Just to do something.”
When he sat on Cody’s bike and wrapped his fingers around the handlebars, his mood brightened and his pain lessened.
“It was instantaneous,” he said. “It was the first time something gave me a break from what I was dealing with.”
Riding the motorcycle kick-started his competitive engine. If he couldn’t race on the BMX circuit anymore, he could try motocross. Soon, he and Cody were racing on tracks at Lake Sugar Tree in Axton and Birch Creek.
That’s when the brothers decided to launch a foundation for veterans.
“If this worked for me,” Dustin said, “maybe it can help others.”
Kicking up a little dirt
“As long as you have good technique when there is chaos going on, you have control,” Rusty Reynolds told riders during the VetMX clinic. That sounded like good life advice, too.
The riders started the day slowly, riding in circles at first, then gradually doing some figure eights. By the end of the three-hour session, the vets engaged in a little side-by-side racing. Riders revved their engines, popped wheelies and kicked up geysers of dirt known as “rooster tails.”
Afterward, a few riders from the group headed down to the Birch Creek track, where they flew down the dirt course and sailed high over the jumps. Everybody felt like a winner.
“Seeing the guys today has validated the importance of VetMX,” Ebelt said. “I feel like I can still help my bros. That is my task.”