Veterans' Lifelong Mission To Keep Memories Alive

Veterans' Lifelong Mission To Keep Memories Alive
May 27th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Veterans' Lifelong Mission To Keep Memories Alive

Veterans' Lifelong Mission To Keep Memories Alive
Washington Post
May 27, 2007
Pg. C1
Rolling Thunder Riders Mark 20 Years of Supporting Troops
By Pamela Constable, Washington Post Staff Writer
Thousands of military veterans from towns across the country cruised into the nation's capital yesterday on polished Harleys and Hondas, filling the air with the unmistakable leonine rumble that, after 20 years, has become an intrinsic part of Memorial Day weekend in Washington.
The Rolling Thunder motorcycle legions, expected to reach several hundred thousand for today's parade from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, carry an annual message of moral support for U.S. troops fighting abroad, readjusting back home, and imprisoned or missing in action -- a message as relevant today as it was when a handful of Vietnam veterans founded the group in 1987.
"We want to make sure that the soldiers coming back now from Iraq or Afghanistan, whether full or maimed or dead, are being honored and respected in a way that we never were," said Ed Geoffrion, 62, a semiretired auditor and Navy veteran from Chicopee, Mass., with a tattoo of an eagle clutching an American flag on his left biceps. He has ridden his Harley-Davidson Road King to Washington every Memorial Day weekend since 1991.
Many of the bikers were Vietnam vets in their 60s, wearing gray ponytails and black leather vests crammed with badges, patriotic patches and military insignia; some were accompanied by their wives, sporting similar regalia. There were also several elderly Korean War vets in the crowd and a young Marine representing vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For some participants, the event had a theme of carefully nursed grievance, a permanent wound kept alive so future generations would not forget. Many Vietnam vets spoke with deep bitterness of being neglected and scorned after returning from combat 40 years ago, of having fought hard to win a war that they said politicians lost.
They also kept alive their permanent mission to remember soldiers who are missing or imprisoned abroad. Vendors at display booths sold packets of the names, histories and metal ID bracelets of such soldiers.
Most were from the Vietnam era, but one was a young soldier from Ohio, Keith "Matt" Maupin, who went missing after his convoy was ambushed in Iraq in April 2004. Several days later he was shown alive, as a captive, on a televised videotape. There has been no news of him since.
For other veterans in the crowd yesterday, riding to Washington with Rolling Thunder every year has become a ritual of renewed, cathartic healing, a chance to feel unabashedly patriotic and to revel in the friendly welcome they receive as they travel to the capital.
Milo Gordon, 63, a disabled vet and counselor from Wisconsin, said he felt lost and depressed for years after he came home from Vietnam. In 1993, he recounted, he happened to visit Washington and found himself at the Wall, sobbing uncontrollably over a wreath that said "thank you."
"At that moment, I quit wanting to die and started to get involved," he said. Now, Gordon joins a group of several hundred bikers each year in California in a Ride for the Wall. They travel east for 12 days, first on interstate highways and then on smaller roads, stopping at towns in West Virginia, where they distribute donations for schools. Residents eagerly await and celebrate their arrival.
"It is the parade we never got," Gordon said. "When everyone wants to feed you and kids are asking for your autograph, it really pierces that emotional brick wall vets carry with them."
Rolling Thunder riders parked their gleaming machines along Constitution Avenue yesterday and strolled around the Ellipse, relaxing and revving their spirits for their 20th annual parade today from the Pentagon, across Memorial Bridge, to the Wall.
"When we first started out, we had maybe 2,000 bikes, and nobody knew who we were. Now we are respected, and the police say we bring down the crime rate," said Teddy Shpak, 60, a retired Veterans Affairs Department worker from Connecticut who has been to Washington every Memorial Day since 1987.
There were back-slapping reunions and tearful reminiscences. Combat units regrouped around picnics of barbecued ribs. A cluster of Marine veterans knelt to polish the brass plaques surrounding a memorial flagpole. At the Wall, vets mingled with tourists as they inched along the slab bearing 58,249 names.
Men posed for their wives in the door of an HU-1 combat helicopter used in Vietnam, decorated with a pair of boots and a display of 1968-vintage C-rations.
"See those villages? Somewhere around there is where I got shot," a white-haired man said to his wife, peering through bifocals at the fine print on a map of Vietnam.
There were also a lot of paraphernalia, with vendors selling piles of helmets and tailors stitching insignia on new black leather jackets. Many motorcycles were decorated with personal or military touches, and a few were painted to look like the American flag.
But the showpiece of the Rolling Thunder contingent this year is Flashback, an exquisitely painted three-wheel Boss Hoss motorcycle covered with scenes depicting the Vietnam War -- soldiers wading through rivers and throwing grenades; helicopters dropping napalm and evacuating wounded men from jungles.
"None of us likes to go to war," said Lew Winters, 56, a Vietnam vet and trucking company owner from Tennessee who designed the scenes and had them professionally airbrushed on his bike last year in Florida. "But someone has to keep our freedom. This is our tribute to all of the 3.7 million who served in Vietnam."
Winters, his wife, Wanda, and Flashback were surrounded all day by admirers who peered at the lifelike scenes in awe. Many fellow veterans tried to thank him, but he kept shaking his head and repeating, "This is for you."

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