By New York Myke, Owner, San Diego Harley-Davidson
Photos by New York Myke, Robert Patrick & Steven Crouch
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is a very special and sacred place. As an Air Force Combat Controller, TAC-P, with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam, I brought in air strikes and then had to do BDAs (battle damage assessments) afterwards, basically a body count of the damage we did along with an accounting of our losses, aka KIAs (killed in action). I didn’t know many of the names of those we lost, I liked cheering with the guys we saved better; but those images are always with me.
When the Wall was dedicated in 1982 I was there. (That’s another story!) Looking at all the names on that wall I always wonder which were the ones who were killed on my watch. Whether that’s the reason the Wall means so much to me, or just because it’s our Wall, it doesn’t matter, those names are family to me.
I rode my Harley down from New York on Memorial Day 1983 fighting tears most of the way, trying to find every drop of the freedom we fought for, trying to make sense of it all. When I got to Constitution Ave, there were a hundred or so bikes lined up by the Wall. I guess a lot of guys thought just like me, trying to find the freedom we fought for on our Harleys. It grew every year and in 1987 it became organized as a demonstration ride to bring attention to those we left behind, the MIAs & POWs.
I’ve ridden there every Memorial Day since, and fifteen years ago my buddy Robert Patrick (T-1000) came back from a USO tour to Afghanistan and asked if he could ride to Rolling Thunder with me. We’ve made the ride together every year since. He has become a very important part of the event, giving speeches, visiting our wounded heroes at Walter Reed Hospital, connecting with Gary Sinese and other celebrities, generously sharing his celebrity with everyone including all the Gold Star families. I think we were both shocked when Artie Muller announced RollingThunder would no longer be in DC, but we never thought for a minute that we wouldn’t be.
That minute did arrive however with the Covid-19 shut down as we began planning, not knowing if we’d have places to stay or where we’d find food. I was committed no matter what, the challenges just adding to commitment in that strange way obstacles have, of giving a bit more meaning to the cause.
I told Robert he didn’t have to ride this year but he wouldn’t hear of it, I even think he might have felt pissed that I would even suggest that! Just before we left, my friend Steve Crouch, a Coast Guard vet who does lots of Patriot Guard rides, asked to join us.
We made all our hotel reservations before we left so we were locked in; we just hoped we’d find food. Our first night we stopped in St. George, Utah and there was a restaurant next to the hotel, so we got to eat our meal inside with waitress service for the first time in months. Breakfast in the same place, and it was like that all the way across the country until we got to DC.
Being shut down for months, I can’t tell you how strange & wonderful it was just to eat in, but the strangest thing was that there was no traffic. The roads were virtually empty! We took the 15 north to the 70 in Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado, then over the Rockies into Kansas. The weather is always iffy that way this time of the year and the traffic is always heavy. Except, not this year!
Great weather, no traffic and when it started raining hard in Ohio on Wednesday things actually got better. You see when we left we had no idea what we would do when we got to DC. I knew we were going to the Wall but no Rolling Thunder, no Rolling to Remember which is the Amvets organization who’ve volunteered to take over the Demonstration Ride, and Covid-19 to boot.
So here’s my good friend Robert who always leaves his acting career hanging for the two weeks we’re gone for, and now also leaving his Harley-Davidson dealership, Santa Clarita H-D, smack in the middle of the Coronavirus shutdown. Actually both our dealerships were shut down except for parts and service, and people were telling me I was nuts leaving in the middle of all this, especially when there’s nothing going on in DC.
Maybe those people didn’t understand, and I didn’t explain, that those names on the Wall were expecting me, and after everything they’ve been through I’m not going to disappoint them. They haven’t had the life I have, haven’t been with their families but still had to endure being called the names we were, been looked down on as jerks who went to a war when they could have gone to Canada or been a hippie. They couldn’t respond but we responded for them, making the Wall the most visited monument of all, by showing up in record numbers on Veterans Day, Father’s Day, and of course Memorial Day every year!
That’s why I so appreciate what Robert Patrick does every year and what everyone who goes to the Wall contributes to the dignity of every name on that Wall, their families, friends, everyone who ever served and especially to all the Gold Star families! So we had no agenda except to show up, and show our love, respect and appreciation!
I said things got better in Ohio because as Robert and I were lost in a downpour as it was getting dark, and Steve had gotten separated a hundred miles back (we all knew the destination hotel), we got a call from the White House to ask if we could be there on our Harleys on Friday morning! Yes “there” as in, at the White House?! Hell yeah!
We rolled into DC Thursday afternoon. The hotel we always stay at was virtually empty, nothing and I mean nothing was open, the town was empty, desolate and eerie! We checked in, our friend Tony met us, opened a local place we usually hang at that was closed (but we got in), locked the door behind us, Tony made us lunch, we had plenty of cigars and just chilled. After a while we decided to go to the Wall, now that we got here, settled in and reminded ourselves what ‘the mission’ was all about. We walked the mile or so; Steve’s back was killing him but he made it, then got a ride back.
No one was there but us; it hurt to see the emptiness. The 58,000-plus on the Wall seemed lonely and disappointed; we took pictures from different angles but it didn’t get any better. It was dark now and Robert wanted to go to the Korean War Memorial. If you haven’t seen the Korean Memorial it is unique in its design of soldiers walking through a hostile environment. It’s haunting for sure and makes you realize what artistic treasures, works of art and symbols of the love of country these men had and the deep loss they and their loved ones endured, that these monuments and memorials are.
We left there after a while and walked to the WWll Memorial before heading back to our hotel. The contrast between the Wall and this amazing tribute to almost a half a million American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were killed in less than the four years of that war, hits me every time I see it. It’s truly a beautiful memorial and deservedly so, with flags, waterspouts and great quotes in gold leaf! The contrast to our below ground black wall has been there since the dedication of this great Memorial, just as the label ‘The Greatest Generation’ has been there since the book came out in 1998.
It was pitch dark as we left after ten at night; I was struck when I looked up at the flagpoles at the entrance/exit, flags proud and illuminated, guarding the hallowed grounds, and I noticed the POW/MIA flags under the American flags.
The irony was not lost on me, that though looking down at the Memorial for my generation’s war, you had to look up at the symbol we championed. The cause of those missing and held as prisoners, which wasn’t talked about before Rolling Thunder, with the help of US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, brought the issue to the conscience of the nation.
As we Vietnam Veterans argued for our government to do more about the over 2,800 still unaccounted for in Vietnam, we discovered that there were still over 8,000 still unaccounted for from Korea and over 80,000 from WWll!
We created the image that is outlined in white on a black background that brings attention to this issue, and is a constant reminder to our combat forces that we will leave no American behind and for every warrior to be brought home! I definitely left there feeling a little prouder but with the sadness that going into this Memorial Day weekend so few were able to be here.
Friday was the big day! We had been invited to the White House on our Harleys to join with a few of the leaders of the Amvets who were going to bring Rolling to Remember to continue the Demonstration Ride in DC on Memorial Day! We were to be at the designated gate at 9:30 and of course we got up early, got there at 9 am sharp because it was raining, forgetting there was no traffic. The guard did all the required checks, then told us to wait across the street (in the rain!) and come back at 9:30! What! Hey it’s the White House and these dudes don’t play games!
So Robert and I could only roll across the street, come back at the appointed time of 9:30, join the twelve other riders and go through the rest of the ‘checkpoints’! Once we did that, we rode on to the grounds and to the South Lawn where the President gets on Marine One. Wow!
They lined us up in front of where President Trump was to come out to speak. The music was playing loudly while we spoke with each other as well as staffers, FBI & Secret Service men and women. We kept getting wet as the rain wouldn’t stop, but neither did the excitement of this incredible moment!
I should note a few things at this point that had an impact for us riding our motorcycles on the grounds of the White House. Robert Patrick is a long time member of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club, he wears his colors whenever he rides and was particularly proud to wear them today!
Although I am proud to be a member (9th Honorary Member) of the Wind & Fire Motorcycle Club, I am also a Member of Rolling Thunder National and I’m always riding as a veteran, especially today, alongside the Amvets who have stepped up to take on this huge task! I do have my W&F patch proudly displayed along with several other ‘statements’ and they all got plenty of attention as the cameras began to roll. Robert on the other hand, was all Boozefighter!
The President came out and made his speech thanking the Amvets. He talked about the importance of Rolling Thunder, thanked us for 32 years, and thanked Robert Patrick for being there and lending his celebrity to this cause. Then he instructed us to start our engines and take two laps around the heli-pad as fast as we could go! We happily complied, ready to be wild as well as being wet.
We took off slowly behind the Amvets President. I was behind Robert, and as we rounded the first lap at little more than a respectable parade speed, the Boozefighter in Robert took over. Robert raced through the bikes in front of him, lapped us all and stood on his floorboards as he sped past us a second time, giving a fist salute to President Trump!
The Secret Service people were a bit alarmed, but if they didn’t expect the Terminator to stand out they sure acted like they did, and it was in good humor that they let him know they definitely had ‘eyes on’ him, as if it could have gotten out of hand! We all thought it was great; the Amvets were certainly inspired, as we all were. I pointed out how far the Boozefighters had come, from the 1947 Life magazine article with the photo of a drunk Boozefighter in Hollister, to Robert raging on his Harley in his Boozefighter cut at the White House!
We met later with many of the young staff members we had met that day, we went back to the Wall, smoked lots of cigars and tried to gain some insight from these amazing and bright minds. They had lots of questions for me about war in general, my experiences in-country (in Vietnam), when I got back, how the Wall affected me and lots more.
They also had tons of questions for Robert about his many roles but mainly T-2! Robert is always eager to talk to anyone who appreciates his artistry and this would be no different, especially when I overheard one of the guys tell Robert that he ‘made his childhood’!
There was also a particularly telling moment (even for me!), when he was asked about his role in the film “Cop Land.” It’s not always clear where patriotism begins and politics ends, but my friend Robert is a true patriot with deep feelings about America. He would never allow politics to influence that, nor would he allow my politics to influence him either.
Although he’s made that clear to me over our many discussions spanning over 25 years, he made it clear to everyone listening when he responded to the “Cop Land” question by describing (for about twenty minutes) his appreciation of Robert De Niro in a scene and what a great artist De Niro is, not giving a second thought to how much most of us must despise De Niro. Robert only sees him as an artist through an artist’s eyes. I’ve always appreciated that but it was a good reminder; it was also a good way to set boundaries as we go forward to help get Rolling to Remember up for next year!
Friday night is when we’ve traditionally had the Candle Lighting Ceremony at the Wall. We were again joined by the young White House staffers as we met the Amvets and walked down to the Vortex of the Wall for prayers and wreath laying.
No, it wasn’t the same for sure, there weren’t many people, no Gold Star families and no crowds holding up lighted candles, but it was something! It was all we had. It was sincere and dignified, and on Saturday afternoon when Robert, Steve and I went back to the Wall, there were more wreaths, plaques, letters, flowers, pictures and other items left there that made us feel a lot better.
I was especially heartened by a plaque from Run For The Wall that vowed to be back next year! Run For The Wall started a year after Rolling Thunder; it’s a very important component of what made Rolling Thunder so successful. It’s wonderful people who are genuinely committed and ride across America each year. They organize, support each other and bring their patriotism and enthusiasm for those who serve, to cities where they stop year after year. So today, some who participated in welcoming RFTW when they were children, now bring their children!
Saturday we joined with the Amvets who staged a mini Rolling Thunder/ Remember event starting at the Pentagon parking lot, following the route RT took across Arlington, down Constitution Ave and back again to the parking lot. During RT we’d walk from there to the stage set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial, this time we just rode the route again and again! Although there weren’t the large overwhelming crowds waving American flags and cheering, there were actually lots of folks lining the streets doing just that. And though there weren’t hundreds of thousands of bikes here, our taking three to four hours riding the route over and over made things feel bigger. Those who were there were also able to share something else special: the commitment that we all knew was in everyone there.
And as is true every year there was no one more committed than the Saluting Marine! Tim Chambers has stood at attention in full dress uniform year after year saluting every rider hour after hour, and the only change he made this year was his 24-Hour Challenge. Tim’s commitment was quite impressive, as always, and seeing him there made me, Robert, Steve and I’m sure many others of the hundred or so riders feel like we were truly accomplishing something, as we at least had the ‘trapping’ of normalcy, with the highlight of the Saluting Marine! A big thank you, Tim!
We were invited to ride to Fort McHenry on Monday, Memorial Day, during President Trump’s speech. This was a big deal, it’s where Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem while offshore on a truce ship, observing the British warships bombarding the fort during the War of 1812. Fort McHenry is over an hour away in Baltimore, so we wouldn’t be able to leave that day, and in any case Sunday would be our last full day at the Wall.
So we spent Sunday at the Wall again, this time with more people than we had seen there so far. It was clear that friends, family, loved ones and a handful of Veterans weren’t going to stay away because of a virus, because DC was closed down or because of anything else! I’ve used the word commitment a lot but when there are nothing but obstacles in your way, that’s what it takes and without a doubt that commitment was deep and deeply felt.
Robert has lots of Veteran friends in his life and a couple of them asked him to look up their friends on the Wall. There are books of names and info on where to find them. Robert has looked up the names his friends gave him, and after being around the Wall so much we got to see many take the ‘rubbings’ of the names off the Wall.
Seeing that, Robert set out to do the same for his friends, and it turned out to be kind of emotional as well. Hearing names is one thing, but somehow getting involved, even by just rubbing the name in the Wall is personal. I’ve seen it before over these many years, I’ve never done rubbings either of friends on the Wall or for friends but I’ve seen many others do so and now here I am helping my friend find a name, listening to him tell the story of that person, then rubbing their name on a sheet of paper! Doesn’t sound like much but even writing about it gets to me.
Maybe it’s just the commitment of a person to his friend being demonstrated with real honest care about guys who died in a war over 45 years ago, who were disrespected and treated like lowlifes at the time by their fellow countrymen and women. Maybe it’s comforting to know that even with all the obstacles, there are Americans who will find a way to get to the monuments that honor those who sacrificed their very lives so we can live ours. Maybe it’s just a relief to know we’re being absolved of the crime of being a Vietnam Vet… NAH!
We went back to the Wall again on Monday when we got back from Baltimore, to pay our last respects, and because we knew that being there was important if only because those who went to visit those they cared about would feel good seeing people at the Memorial. It also gave me the chance to say goodbye to the Wall the way I always do, not so much to any individual, but to all those of my generation who sacrificed, more as a way of saying “thank you” to the ones who went before us. That we kept the faith & appreciated their sacrifice, that their lives weren’t given in vain. And a “thank you” also to those serving today for accepting our service and for making the sacrifice of these great Americans a part of what inspired them to serve us in our military.
We left Tuesday morning and basically retraced our route back, staying in the same hotels and eating at every Cracker Barrel Restaurant (please don’t change your name!) we could find open. Our goal was to get to Grand Junction as early as possible so we could spend some time with my friend Scott who owns Grand Junction Harley-Davidson.
Since Robert has also become a Harley dealer, visiting other Harley dealers when we travel has become doubly important; it’s something I always do to learn from others’ experience and share ideas about best practices. So now Robert and I can keep the conversation going over cigars whenever we travel! We also wanted to eat at Enzo’s Ristorante Italiano in Grand Junction, one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. It worked out well as Robert, Steve and I rode to Enzo’s, and Scott met us there. It was doubly nice when Scott picked up the tab! Thanks Scott!
The only damper came when Robert got a call that night telling him the riots were getting close to his house in LA! We decided right there we’d ride the 800-plus miles straight back. Up until then it was a leisurely pace of 400 to 600 miles a day and that was kinda nice and relaxing. We made it home to LA and me to San Diego by around 10 that night. Robert’s family was fine, my wife Petrina was happy to see me, my dog Thunder was thrilled and jumped all over me. How much more commitment can anybody ask for than that!
Now it’s time to get back to work and do what we can to make sure there are thousands and thousands of motorcycles in Washington, DC on Memorial Day 2021!
–Visit www.nps.gov/vive/index.htm for more info about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.