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Motorcycle ride beginning in Grand Forks will bring awareness of PTSD

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Soldiers and former soldiers and people who care about soldiers will ride again Saturday for Joe Biel, maneuvering motorcycles over safe roads and remembering when Joe tried to make safe the bomb-strewn highways of Iraq.

Joe Biel
Joe Biel
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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Soldiers and former soldiers and people who care about soldiers will ride again Saturday for Joe Biel, maneuvering motorcycles over safe roads and remembering when Joe tried to make safe the bomb-strewn highways of Iraq.

Spc. David Young last heard from his squad leader two years ago.

It was natural that Biel would make that last call to Young. They had served together, Joe operating the heavily armored "buffalo" up front, Dave in a Humvee, as they searched for hidden explosives.

When they came home in late 2006, after disposing of more than 400 IEDs, after nearly losing Young in one explosion, Biel didn't return to his home in South Dakota. He moved in with Young in Devils Lake, and they both stayed in the North Dakota National Guard at Camp Grafton.

The call came in the evening of April 26, 2007. They had been back from the desert for six months.

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"He said, 'Tell everybody I love them,'" Young said. "He said goodbye, and he said he was sorry."

Young alerted a few other soldiers that Joe was in trouble as he raced to his buddy's side.

Joe held a loaded gun.

"We tried to get him talked out of it," Young said. "Three other soldiers who worked with Joe were there, and we said, 'We're going to get you help.' We tried everything.

"It just wasn't enough. Everything had built up so much inside him."

There has been little if any public mention of Joe Biel's suicide. Young is deeply reluctant to talk about it, except to confirm that it happened before his eyes -- and to warn that it could happen again.

So, he and the others will get on their motorcycles Saturday and ride, in the second annual Joe Biel Memorial Ride, "to make people aware of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide and how it affects soldiers' lives every day."

A suicide spike

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The U.S. military has confirmed a spike in the number of suicides committed by active-duty troops as well as veterans returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Members of Congress and leaders of veterans' groups are increasingly concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and whether returning vets are getting the care they need -- especially as they return now to a nation gripped by recession.

"The tragedy is we could have predicted this, what with multiple deployments, the type of urban warfare and the almost inevitable killing of innocent people," Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told the Detroit News last month. "Now, we have an epidemic on our hands. This is a national disgrace."

'Wild and carefree'

Young, 28, met Biel in Minot when their Guard unit was activated in August 2005. Biel, a staff sergeant, was older but seemed comfortable around the younger men.

"He was kind of a wild guy," Young said. "A wild, carefree, fun guy. No matter where we went or what we did, it always seemed to be his 21st birthday.

"He was my squad leader. He was the type of guy who would always make sure that everybody in his squad was squared away, always had everything they needed, whether it be air conditioning for our rooms or more ammo."

Their mission in Iraq was to patrol main routes in search of IEDs, the "improvised explosive devices" that have taken so many lives and left so many U.S. troops injured.

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"We cleared them and tried to make sure the routes were as safe as possible for coalition forces and the Iraqi people as well," Young said.

For a year, they went out on patrol in a formation of four vehicles, led by Biel in the buffalo.

"It's a humongous vehicle, almost indestructible taking an IED blast," Young said, "with a big arm coming off it -- we called it a spork -- with four teeth coming off the front and a big claw off the back."

Moving down roads at 10 to 15 mph, floodlights turning night to day, they looked for anything suspicious. Most IEDs were disguised or buried.

"We found 479 in a 12-month span, tops in all of Iraq," he said.

"Joe was one of the main buffalo operators, one of our best IED finders. If you know how to use the arm right, you won't set off the IED. You call in the disposal unit and blow it up.

"Sometimes, the bomb found us before we found the bomb. A lot of us got messed up from being blown up all the time."

On May 6, 2006, Young was riding in the Humvee, "not nearly as up-armored as the buffalo," when an IED detonated and the front of the Humvee was blown off. The blast broke a vertebra in Young's neck, and he lost consciousness.

"When I woke up, Joe was there," he said. "He was the first one there to pull me out of harm's way. I always felt safe when Joe was in the buffalo ahead of me, but this was a well-disguised IED, below the asphalt."

Young was laid up for a month but stayed in Iraq, returning to patrol when he had recovered.

"We had many incidents where we had guys who got blown up," he said. "This is why we do this ride, to let the world know that PTSD and depression in soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan is real."

Some are "having a really tough time with this. It's eating at them, or they know somebody."

Somebody like Joe.

Playing it 'cool'

"From the time we got back, I could tell he was having a tough time," Young said.

"It affected him every day. He was going to the VA (Veterans Affairs) and trying to get things together, but with his personality he wasn't going to ask for help. He was going to play cool.

"I think most guys with PTSD try to act normal, act as if they're the same person they were before. But they're not."

Biel had no legal problems, didn't use drugs and didn't abuse alcohol, Young said. He wasn't married and, as far as Young knows, had no relationship problems.

He did have a problem putting the war behind him, his friend said.

"There wasn't a day that he didn't tell me he blamed himself for me getting blown up. I always told him, 'Hey, it's war. There's nothing you could have done.'"

The National Guard "is doing all they can now to educate us soldiers," Young said. "We have suicide prevention training and suicide awareness training -- every soldier in the North Dakota National Guard has gone through that -- and there's a task force set up, an emergency reaction group" ready to respond to a crisis.

"Our governor and our adjutant general have done a phenomenal job in getting us the help we need to deal with a situation like this. The VA has helped quite a lot. Now we need the world to realize that these soldiers, when they come back and seem basically fine, maybe are not."

So, they will ride.

Their first ride last year raised money for a billboard they'd like to see on Interstate 94 that says, "PTSD and depression are real. Get help now." There would be a phone number to call. Young said money raised this year also will go toward that project.

Saturday's ride starts at 9 a.m. at the Spirit Lake Casino near Devils Lake, follows U.S. Highway 2 to the East Grand Forks VFW Post for a rally, then heads south on Interstate 29 to Fargo and Wahpeton, N.D.

Young is hoping to see some familiar faces.

"The biggest help anybody can get is by staying in touch with the people you were deployed with," he said. "When we get together and reminisce, joke around ... you just feel so much better.

"I miss it every day," he said, talking about the time he spent in Iraq. "Not the blowing up part, but the camaraderie we had. The guys I served with, they're like my brothers. And Joe was a huge part of that."

There is anger among Joe's friends that he killed himself. But Young insists the anger is not directed at Joe.

"We all understand," he said. "We don't fault him. Obviously, there's other ways. ... But we definitely, just totally, understand."

Biel's funeral was in Peever, S.D., a few miles off I-29 south of Sisseton.

"Everybody went," Young said. "I've never seen so many people at a soldier's funeral."

How old was Joe when he died? Young reached into a pocket.

"He was 36," he said, reading from an obituary.

"Nobody knew how old he was until the funeral, when we saw the obituary. I have it here. I carry it in my uniform every day, next to my heart."

The Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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