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Heidi Shaffer, Published May 12 2010

Bike ride to raise PTSD awareness

Staff Sgt. Joe Biel wasn’t the same after returning home from his second tour in Iraq, his friends said.

“I could definitely tell something wasn’t right,” said Spc. David Young, who served with Biel and lived with him in Devils Lake, N.D., after returning from Iraq.

Biel committed suicide in April 2007, and now his fellow North Dakota Guardsmen are sponsoring a motorcycle ride in his memory to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among veterans.

“With him, just like any other soldier, they’re not going to admit when they’re having negative thoughts, suicidal thoughts or struggling,” Young said.

The men served in the 164th Engineer Combat Battalion based out of Minot, N.D., a unit responsible for clearing roads and supply routes of improvised explosive devices.

Because of the combat the unit saw, no one was left untouched, physically or mentally, Young said.

“All of us have some on-going reminder of our deployment,” Young said. “Anyone who came back and said they didn’t have PTSD would be lying.”

One man from the unit, Spc. Michael Hermanson of Fargo, was killed, but Staff Sgt. Matt Leaf of Moorhead said there would have been more had it not been for Biel, who died at age 36.

“He saved more lives in Iraq than he realized when he was alive, and I don’t think he got credit for it,” Leaf said.

Returning home was a difficult transition for the men, made harder by the fact the 164th was disbanded. Many of the soldiers joined other units in North Dakota, but splitting up after serving together for 15 months was tough, Leaf said.

“When you come home, that’s really hard to lose your closest friends like that,” he said. “I think everybody was really feeling a sense of loneliness.”

The transition was especially hard for Biel. He was no longer the outgoing and fun person he had once been and began to withdraw from social situations, Young said.

Biel didn’t like to talk about himself much, and his friends weren’t sure how to help, Young said.

“Joe was always so busy helping everybody else that he didn’t ask for help from anyone else,” Leaf said.

Biel’s death inspired Young and Leaf to form Trailblazer MC, a motorcycle club with the mission of exposing the dangers of PTSD and supporting veterans suffering from the disease.

The third annual Joe Biel Memorial Ride on Saturday also serves as a sort of reunion for soldiers of the 164th.

They hope to raise enough money through the ride to put up a billboard with information about a veterans’ help line. So far, $2,500 has been raised; $1,500 more is needed for the sign.

The ride starts in Surrey, N.D., a few miles outside of Minot. From there, the riders will go to Devils Lake, East Grand Forks, Minn., and end in Moorhead.

The group hopes for good weather. The two previous rides were cold, and last year it even snowed. About 100 riders will participate this year, including 50 from the North Dakota National Guard, Leaf said.

The organization is open to veterans from any war who may be struggling or just want to help, he said.

“I’m a suicide survivor myself,” Leaf said. “I was in Joe’s shoes about three months before he committed suicide, and he was there for me.”

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