Their military uniforms are packed away in a storage bin somewhere in a dusty attic, or perhaps hanging in the back room closet protected by a sheet of plastic, yet still discolored from years of disuse. Row upon row of multi-hued service ribbons are still pinned over the left breast pocket. Few, if any, of the veterans attempt to squeeze into their old threads of service since age and one too many chocolate donuts have taken a toll, yet these senior warriors continue to serve most honorably in so many different ways.
Their modern-day service is loud and noticeable, usually on a Harley-Davidson but just as conspicuous straddling a Honda, Indian, Kawasaki, Triumph, Suzuki, Victory, Yamaha or a VW dune buggy painted Big Bird Yellow. They are the Riders, different clubs, different charters, yet all united in a passionate mission to honor the fallen. Well-worn jeans and leather vests adorned with military regalia project a deceptive image of a motorcycle gang, but these men and women are not Hell’s Angels, they are simply earth-bound Angels cognizant of the right thing to do.
Even more remarkably, the Riders ‘do the right thing’ enthusiastically and at their own expense. An oil change on a Harley can cost $140.00; a Tri-Glide (3-wheeler) can cost a Rider $320.00 for a battery swap and $1400.00 for a brake job. Most bikes require high octane fuel.
My wife and I were persuaded to participate in this years’ “Ride for the Fallen”, an annual bike event to honor the 211 Georgians lost thus far in the Global War on Terror. ‘Persuaded’ means the thought of yours truly behind the handlebars of a Hog fostering images of my soft skull versus concrete equals hospitalization. Albeit, American Legion Rider Charlie Rizzo had the solution: the use of his customized bright lemon- yellow VW dune buggy. Being a baby boomer going on 18, I cheerfully accepted the offer, which pleased my wife considerably.
The American Legion Post 77 (Conyers) Riders and one dune buggy met at the Waffle House in Shady Grove for breakfast at 0800, which is one more reason why we no longer fit into our military uniforms. Fueled on Waffle House grease, we headed for the ride’s staging area rendezvous at Cycle World of Athens, the event sponsor. The bikes kept thundering in: American Legion Post 163, Post 233, ARATE, Combat Vets, Christian Motorcycle Club, Patriot Guard Riders, other local and national groups, plus our Lawrenceville Motorcycle Police escort, and one dune buggy.
A sampling of Patriots on Bikes: Wayne Brown served off the coast of North Vietnam on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. Ricky Ball, Army transportation; Marine Jack Strong saw service in Afghanistan and Iraq; George Hillenger said, “I’m not a veteran. I ride to honor my father, a veteran of WWII in Germany then Japan.” A Chaplain Rider, “No, sir, I didn’t serve as a Chaplain in the Army, I was an aircraft mechanic.”
Mike Burwell saw action in Pleiku, Vietnam. Robert Wilson joined the Air Force in 1977 “When nobody else would,” serving in Panama and supported the Iranian Hostage rescue; his brother was stationed at the Pentagon as a “crypto specialist” — Derrick Dugan covered the “Ride for the Fallen” as marketing director for Full Throttle Magazine.
Mike Hipps has undergone 14 back operations with two more scheduled. Things like that happen when a soldier is kicked out of a helicopter from 90 feet up, lands in a tree grove, and remains stranded for three hours. Doug Nuttson served aboard a fleet transport; Marine Ron Dillon was a door gunner in Vietnam serving in the Marble Mountain region, stayed in the military and retired as a Master Sergeant. Bill Posey gave the US Army eight years of his life, 13 of those months in Vietnam seeing action in the infamous area known as the Iron Triangle. Richard Wilson served as a crewmember aboard the secretive C-130 Black Birds on electronic missions plus dropped supplies to Special Forces camps.
Comments: “We were hot and sweaty. It was nighttime. I jumped off the diving board and saw five cobras in the pool.
Frogs get in the pool; snakes follow the frogs. A man can stop in mid-dive, if he really wants to.” Another veteran of the bush: “I got bit, a gray snake with whitish specks. They said it wasn’t a venomous snake but I swelled up like the Goodyear blimp.” Mentioned far too many times: “Joe died from Agent Orange.” “The cancer got him, exposure to Agent Orange.” “He loaded Agent Orange. He’s gone.”
Remembering their fathers: “Dad was with the 8th in England, survived 26 missions then came home. Two missions later the same B-17 went down. Killed the entire crew.” “My father said his plane was a coffin, came home on two of four engines twice. He only weighed 135 pounds so they made him a top turret gunner. Dad said the Germans fighters basically flew into their bullets, that it was impossible to actually hit a fighter in action. He was offered a free ride in a B-17 several years ago but he refused, saying, ‘Nope, I’m not going up again.’ I can’t say that I blame him.”
The stories continued: “Never knew my uncle landed in Normandy in the first wave until my cousin found a photo of him aboard the landing craft.” Bravery: “We never knew until after his death that Dad saved an entire crew on one mission, ended up with 3 Bronze Stars during the war. We found out all this after his death. Dad’s pilot wrote to us and told us about our father’s bravery. We never knew. We never knew.”
His handle is Big Country, probably because he’s big and country. “I’m not a veteran, but I ride to honor my cousin, Gordon Hawk. He served in the Marines during Desert Storm. Gordon returned home a troubled man, took his own life; left a wife and two children. Yeah, I ride for my cousin.”
Marine Jeff Bailey, Granada, Beirut, and Iraq. Rossoni, 27 years in the Air Force; Paul “Figgy Mo” Figaroia, 10 years Navy, Desert Storm; Jim McCaman 67/69 Dak To; and Ed Tillman, in his 25th year serving in the US Air Force. “Yeah, I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan and it’s time for me to retire. 25 years is enough, don’t ya think?”
A Band of Brothers and Sisters, the camaraderie, new friends versus old friends rekindling relationships perhaps deemed ancient history. A cup of coffee, a stale donut, dog-eared war stories finding fresh life. All part of the Biker Brotherhood. Yet the gaiety was short-lived. The time had come to saddle-up.
Over 200 Bikers revved their rides, and one dune buggy coughed to life. Our lead vehicle was a two and a half ton Army truck with one banner proclaiming “Ride for the Fallen”, the other banner declaring “We Remember You, Joshua Bowden.” SSgt. Bowden, 28 years of age, lost his life to small arms fire while patrolling near Ghazni, Afghanistan. And it was Riders, over 400 of them, who escorted Sgt. Josh Bowden from Charlie Brown Fulton County Airport to his final resting place.
Our procession, under police escort, pulled out one by one from Cycle World for the 15 minute trip to tiny Statham, GA., a small town with a big heart. Statham provided the food, water, and permits; shut down old town, and opened their Civic Center for photos and letters of the fallen.
Every vehicle - let that sink in a minute - every vehicle, traveling in the opposite direction stopped to pay their respects. One young man in a pickup truck stood by his vehicle holding high the famous painting of The Wall, the epic depiction of a weeping middle-aged business man holding his hand against The Wall as apparitions of lost brothers hold their hands against his. People waved flags from their front porches. Kids waved from car windows, all bugged-eyed at the dune buggy.
Statham offered closure for many. All 211 names of Georgians lost in the Global War on Terror were read one by one. My wife and I read two each: Army Sergeant First Class Edgar N. Roberts, 39, of Hinesville, Ga., killed in action August 17, 2010. Army Corporal Matthew B. Phillips, 27, of Jasper, Ga, killed in action on July 13, 2008. Air Force Lt. Col. Glade L. Felix, 52, of Lake Park, Ga., perished on June 11, 2007, and U.S. Army Private First Class Jesus Fonseca, Jr., 19, of Marietta, Ga., killed in action on January 17, 2005. One lady held high a large photo of her nephew, a man the photo of his son.
Somber, silent, a stillness of time. Short speeches and long faces as the reality of war once again visited combat-hardened veterans. The event over, Statham somehow returned to normalcy. The dune buggy pulled out and headed for the Moving Wall at the Walk of Heroes. Bikers, hot and exhausted, revved up their machines then reached deep down for another surge of energy to complete their next mission: the Currahee Museum in Toccoa, GA. Their long day was only half completed.
Now a personal note. In November of 2013, five Bikers lost their lives in traffic accidents coming home from one mission. Over 30 Bikers have perished on missions in the last 3 years. ‘All gave some; some gave all,” has been a popular slogan in recent years to depict the military service of so many unheralded or forgotten veterans, yet the Riders continue to serve, continue to give, and some have given their all. My wife and I spent the day with Patriots honoring Patriots. It felt good to be back in the company of authentic Americans.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.