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Old 11-14-2006, 01:23 PM
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Default Motorcycle Crash Rate Alarms Military

Back from war, but still taking risks - Troops returning from duty are dying on bikes


Alexander Cunningham manned the turret gun on a Humvee in northern Iraq last year when a bomb exploded under the engine block.

Shards of metal hit his face. But it wasn't AJ's time to die.

That day came on a muggy Saturday, Aug. 26, in the small town of Aberdeen, 100 miles east of Charlotte. His new Kawasaki Ninja, a 650cc sports bike, hit a pickup head-on. Gail Cunningham wrestles with the cruel illogic of a warrior son who had returned from the front lines, only to die three miles from his front door. "Our guard was let down," she says.

Some war veterans return home with a sense of invincibility and a hunger for danger. Others are novice riders with money for a dream bike. Whatever the cause, Army troops and veterans are dying in rising numbers on motorcycles in America.

The increase comes as more troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The deaths raise questions about the efficacy of safety programs and whether the military should curtail marketing of motorcycles at bases in combat zones.

The number of motorcycle deaths among Army personnel has more than doubled since 2003, while the number of automobile fatalities has dropped. The Army lost 48 soldiers and veterans in motorcycle accidents in the fiscal year that ended in October, almost one death a week. In the four branches, the deaths totaled 109, up from 83 in 2003.

As with the civilian sector, motorcycle deaths have risen in tandem with increased motorcycle sales.

The lowest-ranking grunts in war zones can save about $18,000 tax-free during yearlong tours of duty.

Like World War II fighter pilots who formed some of the earliest motorcycle clubs, many of today's combat vets ride motorcycles as a way to recapture the rush of life on the edge.

Dr. Ray Shelton, a director at the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress in Commack, N.Y., suggests returning combat veterans wait four to eight weeks before jumping on a bike.

Those who survived roadside bombs and insurgent bullets often come home feeling invulnerable. "If they carry that thinking into the civilian world, they'll ride into a truck," says Shelton, a biker for 35 years.

The rise in motorcycle fatalities defied outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who in May 2003 challenged the military to reduce all types of accidents by half. Only the Air Force has seen motorcycle fatalities decline since 2003, by 29 percent.

All military branches launched safety-awareness campaigns this year. Fort Bragg and other Army installations now require bike owners to take rider-safety training. Other branches ripped a page from the Air Force and formed clubs or paired experienced riders with novices. Safety alerts on the American Forces Network continue to air with Orwellian frequency, sometimes three or more an hour.

And the home page of the U.S. Army Forces Command Web site on Monday featured at least four motorcycle safety articles, including a video admonishment from four-star Gen. Dan McNeill.

"We need you standing tall," the general says. "I ask you to stop before you act. ... Staying alive, that's what it's all about."

For sale in combat zones

One step the military won't take is to ban Harley-Davidson sales offices on bases in combat zones.As an American manufacturer, Harley is the only motorcycle company with sales outlets on bases in the Middle East. Harley has sold cycles on overseas bases since 1970, courting a close relationship with the military even as it promotes a socially acceptable rebellion.

The company entered Iraq shortly after U.S. forces in 2003. Its contract with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service has been extended through August 2008. AAFES gets a percentage of sales.

Harley, like U.S. automakers, offers military discounts of up to 8.5 percent that can knock $1,700 off a $20,000 machine. Harley's sales in Iraq and Afghanistan have dwarfed those at bases in Europe and the Pacific.

Internet access is widely available on military bases, and service members can buy virtually any brand of motorcycle off the Web while deployed.

"Everyone's pointing the finger at Harley because they're the only ones" with the sales outposts, says Walter Beckman, the loss-prevention program manager at the Army Combat Readiness Center at Fort Rucker, Ala. "And they're not the problem."

Seven of the 48 Army motorcycle fatalities in 2006 involved Harleys.

Harley enjoys a cult following, with a particularly strong association with the military. Groups of Harley riders attend military funerals to drown out protesters with their engine roar and to pay homage to troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Harley spokesman Mike Morgan says the company has taken "significant steps" to ensure rider safety. He notes that Harley offers military personnel a $200 reimbursement for its Rider's Edge driver training course available in 36 states, including the Carolinas.

Risky behavior

Dr. Mark Lerner, chairman of the for-profit trauma consultant firm National Center for Crisis Management, questions the wisdom of selling motorcycles in combat zones.

Lerner points to a body of evidence showing that those exposed to traumatic events are prone to impulsive, risk-taking behavior for days, weeks or months.

"You're not supposed to make big decisions in the aftermath of traumatic events," he says. "And by marketing to people who are suggestible, you're already into a population of people who may be susceptible to feelings of invulnerability."

Most of the deaths during the past few years involved younger riders on sports bikes -- "crotch rockets" in street nomenclature -- and many of those involved excessive speed, alcohol, lack of helmet, lack of experience or a combination of the above.

About a third involved mostly older riders on Harley or other types of cruising bikes, according to the Army's Combat Readiness Center, which compiles accident data. Today's cruising bikes are bigger and faster, while reaction times among older riders have diminished, the Army's Beckman says.

He and other officials hope that more safety ads, mentor riding programs and training, even for experienced riders, will reduce fatalities.

During the Vietnam War, Corvettes were the danger machines of choice among returning troops, Beckman adds. Soldiers "don't have enough to buy a 'Vette these days, so they're buying the next best thing."

A fatal accident

Kurt Cunningham is a chief warrant officer in the N.C. Army National Guard, where he is a flight instructor and safety officer. Military fatality reports cross his desk. He remembers the one about his oldest son, AJ."Driver of vehicle one was thrown from the vehicle on to the roadway," was the report's clinical conclusion.

By age 20, AJ had held one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. He was awarded a Purple Heart from the bomb attack in Iraq and a collection of other medals. He had married. This spring, the Fort Bragg paratrooper had bought a motorcycle, like his father and uncle years before.

The younger Cunningham was to re-enlist in the infantry the week he was killed.

AJ "was not the most experienced driver," says his father, who adds that he half-heartedly tried to talk his son out of buying the bike.

"His goal was to become a pilot," Kurt Cunningham says. "You can't be expected to be good at that job and not take risks."

Seeking a Rush on 2 Wheels

Rick Introini of Charlotte bought a Harley Softail Deluxe while stationed in Iraq. He was with the Army National Guard 505th Engineer Battalion based in Gastonia and returned in October. He took possession of his bike last week.

"I could get dramatic and say, `As I faced death in Iraq, I wanted a Harley,' but I don't get that deep," says Introini, 55, who delivered auto parts before being deployed. "I'm just at a point in my life where I can afford one."

"My wife thinks it's bottling adrenaline," he says of his Harley. "It could be."

Mike Drummond: 704-358-5248
Genetics loads the gun - the environment pulls the trigger.
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