By Amy Passaretti
Rob Dinsmore retired in December from 30 years with the Air Force and has been trying to find purpose and motivation again. After watching more than a dozen times, an episode of Returning the Favor, a Facebook television series by Mike Rowe, spotlighting Operation Combat Bikesaver in Indiana, he decided to expand this hotrod therapy workshop for veterans to Alabama.
“I showed my wife, Stephanie, the episode and asked if she’d be on board with this project,” said Dinsmore.
“I was completely amazed. Why would I not support it?” Stephanie asked.
Operation Combat Bikesaver is a safe space for veterans or active duty military to bond together with other veterans building motorcycles and eventually earning one of their own with an additional $2,000 for parts and services at no cost to the recipient. With certified mechanics and welders on site to provide guidance, candidates could find this as a distraction from their minds and a positive activity with which to focus.
“In the civilian world, we have no idea the camaraderie they have in the military,” said Stephanie. “And they lose that when they separate or retire from the military. We’re trying to give them a place to go to reinvent that atmosphere, find a family and inspire purpose to pursue.”
Since moving to Alabama for family, the couple bought land in Tallassee with a workshop on site to begin growing the nonprofit operation in a grassroots way. The program provides an environment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression or similar maladies in an effort to lower suicide rates among combat military.
As a lifelong mechanic and motorcycle rider, Dinsmore said this aligned well with his skills, hobbies and passion. Plus, Alabama has the highest veteran suicide rate in the country, so the need was evident, he said.
To apply for workshop status, there is a vetting process. Dinsmore must ensure a candidate has either been honorably discharged from the military or still active duty; then, the candidate has a personal interview with Dinsmore.
“I want to explain to each interested applicant what to expect from the program and what not to expect,” he added. “It’s not about getting a free motorcycle. It’s about the journey and the challenge of fixing up the bike and getting it to run. The time spent and the work put in are what are valuable.”
Jason Zaideman founded Operation Combat Bikesaver in Crown Point, Indiana, in Oct. 2015 after living with the ramifications of his father’s PTSD as a Vietnam veteran. Having also served some years in the U.S. Army, Zaideman named the operation after the military program, Combat Lifesaver, which is a boosted first aid plan for soldiers to help save others when the medic is unavailable.
The concept of saving lives creates parallel meaning.
“We are rebuilding both the bike and the veteran,” said Dinsmore, who also serves as president of Tallassee’s Operation Combat Bikesaver.
The Elmore County location is the first expansion of the program, and Dinsmore had to be vetted by Zaideman to ensure Combat Bikesaver would be in appropriate hands. In August 2018, Dinsmore visited Indiana to meet the crew, participate in a shop day and explain who he was and his interest in the program.
“This is Jason’s baby, so he wants to make sure it’s in good hands. He wants to see it go everywhere but in the right way,” said Dinsmore.
After registering as a 501(c)(3) under the national name and filing paperwork as an Alabama fundraiser and tax-exempt program, Operation Combat Bikesaver will officially open its doors for its first shop day on March 24.
Every Sunday, the workspace will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the veteran participants – referred to as gearheads – along with volunteer workers in the program may come and go as they please. The shop itself will be for veterans only, so it remains a safe – and alcohol-free – space.
“They can share with one another experiences they can’t share with others, or even not share but know other people understand how they feel,” said Stephanie.
Replicating the Indiana facility, there also will be a retail section on site and a meeting room. There will be T-shirts, hats and other swag for sale, and this shop will likely include a glass window for customers to view the gearheads at work.
“In Indiana, every Sunday there is someone that shows up to see what’s going on, whether it’s to donate something, to check out the operation, bring food, etc.,” said Dinsmore. “It becomes a destination, which is what we hope to accomplish.”
All positions at the workshop will be volunteers, which do not have to have any military affiliation, and Dinsmore hopes the public helps out by donating lunches and supporting the cause. The public also can donate motorcycles – preferably older ones that need work – or individual parts.
Currently, the space has all the basic tools to get started, which are Dinsmore’s personal belongings. The big-ticket item missing is a motorcycle lift and additional safety equipment – such as goggles, gloves and helmets – is required.
“It’s nothing fancy, but the tools will work. Eventually we’ll start a wish list and prioritize our needs,” said Dinsmore. “We also need that initial $2,000 for the first build.”
One motorcycle has already been donated to the cause and will be fixed up as the shop bike for advertising purposes and to determine the first build candidate. The shop has room to work on one motorcycle at a time, as they start off slowly, with possible room for two at once.
Dinsmore, along with about five other founding members, will serve in board positions and determine when it’s someone’s turn to earn a bike based on participation, assistance with others, special needs and other circumstances.
“There’s no scientific reason for who gets a bike, but you have to help others build their bikes first,” said Dinsmore.
There will be no limit to the number of gearheads accepted, and Dinsmore said he expects to start off with about 10 to 15 within the first six months, and eventually grow that number.
Having visited the shop in Indiana one other time with Stephanie, Dinsmore hopes to return in mid-March with his fellow staff, so everyone has first-hand experiences of what to expect.
Future goals for Operation Combat Bikesaver include becoming a fulltime business, where veterans could come out 24/7 to work in the shop, as needed.
“I want the gearheads to be able to come out anytime they need therapy and an escape to a safe place,” said Dinsmore. “But for now, we’re starting with the one day a week.”
He hopes to offer assistance with veteran benefits and job placement down the road, as well.
The first fundraising event to kick-start the operation will be a Dice Run on March 23, open to both motorcycles and cars. Starting at Chappy’s Deli in Prattville, with registration at 9 a.m., participants will have a list of stops to visit, where they will roll five dice at each. The Tallassee shop will be a destination, and the event will end at the Thirsty Turtle in Millbrook. Other stops are still to be determined.
Awards will be given for the highest and lowest cumulative numbers, and entry tickets include a barbecue plate, live music, a car show and a silent auction. Those not wanting to participate in the run can still support the cause through the purchase of a ticket and join the after-party, or by donating at combatbikesaver.org/donate.
For details on the event, visit the Operation Combat Bikesaver Facebook page.
“Right now it’s about getting the word out. We want people to come out and experience what we have going on,” Dinsmore said.
More information can be found on the Facebook page, combatbikesaver.org or by calling the Tallassee shop at 334-541-2101.