We Ride For Those Who Can’t
By Jerry Nichols
This is the story of my journey as an “FNG”; it’s a military term some of you will know. (The N and G stand for “New Guy.”) During an afternoon ride back in October with my friend we came across a group of riders parking at Peggy Sue’s Diner in Yermo, CA, a great place to stop for lunch headed north on I-15 when you’re on the way to Las Vegas or just riding the loop out here in the high desert.
I recognized one of the riders as my friend from the H.O.G. group from Victor Valley H-D. They were conducting their monthly organizing meeting for The Run For The Wall (www.rftw.org). He asked us to join them for lunch; there were around 25 riders, most of them former military. By the looks of their patches these folks have done this a few times. I could tell they were well organized. During the meeting they asked who I was and why I was here, and they welcomed me and thanked me for my service. They asked if I would like to join them on this mission from Ontario, CA, to Washington D.C. in May to bring forth the message, WE LEAVE NO ONE BEHIND.
31 years ago, two Vietnam Vets, Bill Evens and James “Gunny” Gregory organized a run with a few patriot supporters. These are the guys who created some special patches and sold them through Easyriders Magazine to raise funds for their run, as back then there was no Quick Throttle Magazine to support them.
The reason for all this started back in 1965 when Pilot Col. Charles Shelton on his 33rd birthday was shot down over Vietnam. He is known as the Last P.O.W., and his wife Marion fought for years to get answers and retrieve her husband from Laos and Cambodia where he was known to be captive. Her hands were tied and she gave in to her own demise in 1990 and took her life. To this day there are still 1,597 Americans unaccounted for in Southeast Asia and this is why Run For The Wall continues.
Run For The Wall Mission Statement from the Midway Route leadership team is… “To promote healing among all veterans, their family and friends, to call for an accounting of all prisoners of war and those missing in action (P.O.W./ M.I.A.), to honor those killed in action (K.I.A.) from all wars and to support all our military all over the world.”
I was honored to ride among Vietnam Veterans, my fellow soldiers I served with and some great patriots supporting this mission. One in particular is Mr. Jim Bruzinski AKA ‘Bruzer’ a Bronco pilot who was shot down six times. Yes, I said six times. He is also a former P.O.W. and he had my flank the entire ride as he is a road guard. He was spotted during the trip pulling a gator (truck tire tread) that was twice his size off the roadway. And the new Midway Route coordinator Ken “Six String” Dugas said the show Swamp People heard of his actions and want to recruit him for their show.
It makes me proud as an American to have seen the patriotism of our nation as I crossed this great country of ours; strangers, volunteers, civil servants, military, churches, motorcycle rights organizations, schools, veterans and just good American people who donated gas, food, time, resources and energy to this run, and this continues every year. Helmets off to all who help.
So for the trip, a few monthly luncheons and updates of our mission details were hosted at Peggy Sue’s Diner (35654 Yermo Rd, Yermo, CA) and Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery (12770 Foothill Blvd, Rancho Cucamonga, CA) where the Girl Scouts of America invited us to an event where they collect American flags for disposal. What a great service they do. Did you know, there are stars from those flags being worn by bikers all over our nation and even by other countries’ bikers? What an honor to keep those stars flying.
Prior to Day 1, with so much to learn, I arrived at the convention center in the afternoon for registration check-in and got my itinerary for the Midway Route, my credentials, signed a release of liability and filled out my “in case something happens” info. And I was invited to a mandatory meeting for all the FNG’s going on the Midway Route. We were introduced to our Midway coordinator Glenn “Wombat” Waggoner who would lead us across the country, and his assistant and successor Ken “Six String” Dugas. And very important to me was Ray “Cornman” Cornesser who is the Missing Man Coordinator who set me up with the Honor to Ride Missing Man formation #22 from Brownsville, TN to Dickson, TN on 20 May, a part of this trip that will forever remain dear to Betty and my hearts. Betty is my 2014 Indian Chieftain; she got me there and back in one piece, Thank you Betty.
We met our stagers who would line up our 3rd platoon daily prior to the run and throughout the day, as at every stop we need to regroup. I met our road guards and fuel teams; these three teams are the unsung heroes of the run as they all arrive and leave before we do at every start and stop along the way. Our Platoon Leader for the run was Mr. Tim “Big Bopper” Bannister who rides a beautiful Honda Valkyrie. His assistant Earl “Duke” Miller our Platoon Chaplain Chuck “Kill Switch” Gentry AKA Charlie Chaplain and our tail gunners were Cookee and Gunner.
Day 1 Destination Flagstaff, AZ, 430 miles.
Early morning staging of over 1,500 motorcycles was impressive. After a great donated breakfast we were graced with the national anthem, honor guard, run blessing, safety briefing and inspiration from our leadership. From there we departed onto three designated routes; ours left first on the Midway Route, and then the other two routes departed minutes later: Southern and Central Routes to Washington D.C. I’ve never seen so many bikes in a run until now, the sound was amazing. There were notes on the pavement to remember soldiers, patriotic themed bikes, bios of KIA and MIA soldiers strapped to riders’ luggage; this is where we all came together as one.
Rule # 1 is no attitudes. That is the standard of conduct and as an ambassador of the Veteran community it’s an honor to be among our mission team mates. We work it out.
From this point forth Betty and I were no longer bike and rider, we were now Operation Run For The Wall XXXI.
I chose to ride in a staggered formation Platoon. There are also tandem formation Platoons. Formation riding is tight and I expected being with a group of riders new to me, this would be my best choice. Through all the meetings and luncheons I felt I was prepared completely except for one thing: experience; sure I’m a seasoned rider, and my skills are there. Yet I have never ridden in a group of this magnitude. I was about to make history. Let’s Roll. Ontario traffic was the first challenge of the day as we rolled onto the freeway, but once we all were on and rolling the Platoon Leader opened it up and we were in the wind, you know that great feeling.
Just before Barstow on the I-15 we approached an overpass filled with patriotic supporters; they were waving flags, saluting and cheering us on as we rode through. “It’s starting to kick in,” I said to myself. This turned out to be the staple across the entire country. I’m truly honored to be on RFTW, it’s a great feeling. We did an escorted pass through at USMC Logistics Base Yermo and were greeted and cheered by the military and civilian personnel there. In no time we were in Ludlow at our first fuel stop, these stops are spaced strategically throughout the run at around 100 miles apart so nobody will run short on fuel.
I stood ready as we rolled in, with my pocket full of 8-dollar portions to pay for gas, but found that on 90% of the trip to D.C. fuel was donated. Fuel cap loose and highway pegs up I was instructed to pull in, cap off, engine off and fuelers handed me the nozzle for premium gas; I fueled, then cap on, engine on, duck under hose and I’m off to staging. Wow that was fast, the fuel teams just fueled 340 plus bikes in less than eighteen minutes, kind of like a NASCAR gas and go. After staging I went over to the hydration trailer where there was cold Gatorade, juice, fruit and snacks all donated; this would also be a staple of the run, now that’s organization.
Farther down the road, we arrived at Yucca, AZ, a small community that was displaying one of the largest American flags I’ve ever seen flying in the wind secured to the fire truck ladder. They had a tent set up and volunteers to hand us food and drinks. After a few presentations and showing our gratitude we heard the first horn blast ten minutes out, then the next blast five minutes out which means “get on your bike now,” then we were on our way. Arriving in Flagstaff we were escorted through town to VFW #1709 which had a warm meal for us before we went to our motels. Betty dusted off and covered for the night, now I can unwind and have a Warsteiner Pilsner, one of my favorite beers I found in the market across the street from the motel.
Day 2 Destination Albuquerque, NM,
339 miles. Staged, briefed and rolling by 7 am we were on our way. After a couple of flawless fuel stops and a cool ride through AZ we arrived at Milan Elementary School in Jamestown, NM, where we were greeted by over 200 excited children all wearing red shirts in our honor and cheering and waving American flags. In front of the school is a circular drive we all rode through, then parked. The kids especially enjoyed “Yankee Poodle“ He is a goggle-wearing standard poodle who rides next to his owner in his Polaris Slingshot. We were fed enchiladas and cake and were entertained in the auditorium. The children of this school really look forward to our visit every year as they know it as the day the RFTW bikers come and it showed, as there were posters of patriotism throughout the school. A lot of us hand them pins and tokens; they love us there.
With a police escort we arrived in Albuquerque to a live band playing classic rock in our honor at Duke City H-D. There we were fed well; they even had cool watermelon cut up for us. Some folks had their bikes serviced and one of our riders purchased a brand new trike; she said it’s way faster than her old bike. At the motel, Betty all cleaned up and put to bed for the night among some other great bikes. Out front of the reception I met a young lady and her boyfriend; she was a Gold Star Family member and wanted to thank the patriot riders who rode escort at her father’s funeral, I told her where we were meeting in the morning and they both were there to give us support.
Day 3 Destination Amarillo, TX, 298 miles. After a great donated breakfast by the Rich Ford Dealership, they gave me almost a pound of bacon, I musta looked hungry. We listened to a soldier’s bio who was killed in action in Vietnam, the stories are so sad to hear but that’s why we are here. Back on the road, we made it to Santa Rosa, NM, to a place called the Blue Hole where we had a great donated lunch. Some of the road guards jumped into the crystal cool water there which is an eighty-foot-deep Artesian well and was formerly used to raise fish; now it’s popular nationwide as a scuba destination.
We arrived at St. Christian Heritage Church in Amarillo to a fine Texas style BBQ with all the fixins, another donated meal. As I was waiting to go inside there was a news crew interviewing our outreach coordinator. The young lady reporter was nervous but she got through it. Making history. This was not your traditional church, it was set up for entertaining and inside looked like a dance hall with a cafeteria and had an awesome audio visual system with a control booth. We were asked to sign a wooden Texas flag someone had made to be displayed in the church. I signed the star. They treated us to a weapon inspection by a cadet and there was a table for the unknown Missing Man soldier, a vivid reminder of why we were there. At the motel Betty had prime parking under the overhang of the reception area, there was a storm approaching, no worries. As I was covering her, Gus showed up with his Texas Longhorn Uber limousine adorned with a great rack out front, He was sporting a ten gallon hat and wearing the Lone Star flag. You know you’re in Texas when…
Day 4 Destination Shawnee, OK, 306 miles. Morning safety briefing said “rain ahead” so we geared up for it and rolled out. Just before Weatherford, OK, we were escorted by two crop dusters who did about six passes over our formation. There was a huge storm cell to the north as we arrived and lightning struck just a mile from us, that was close. And like it was scheduled, the rain stopped and we rolled into the Western School of Technology where there was a Boy Scout Troop with flags saluting us we rolled in.
Quick lunch, then we rolled to the Stafford Air and Space Museum. This place was state of the art, very intricate displays. As a retired aircraft mechanic this drew my interest, there were even two jets on display inside from my last unit I worked for at Edwards Air Force Base. What a cool place to spend retirement as a test jet, better than the Boneyard. Inside there were replicas of famous aircraft: the X-15, the Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright Flyer; and out front was my all-time favorite jet, the F-104 Starfighter perfectly placed shooting skyward.
At this time we were in safety delay as a huge weather cell was pounding Oklahoma City. Our route coordinators did a fine job and found us a safe dry route east to avoid the storm, so we had to forego the National Monument of Oklahoma City, perhaps next time. We arrived safe and dry to Shawnee, OK, where we had another fine donated VFW meal.
Day 5 Destination Forrest City, AR, 392 miles. At the safety briefing we were told roads from here east will be congested and there will be construction, so we will be riding at close intervals and will need to tighten up the packs for safety. This part is challenging as you are riding within one and a half bike length behind the rider in front of you, no room for error, so Betty and I had to be on our A Game. Made it to Coal Hill, AR, for the lunch stop at VFW Post #8532. We fit 362 bikes into a tight parking lot downhill with a hairpin turn, nobody fell over; had some fine Arkansas deep fried chicken. Next stop was only 100 miles farther in Forrest City, AR, at Ridgewood Baptist Church where they had a spaghetti feed with garlic bread and banana pudding. There were presentations and a young man sang the national anthem. We had dinner music played by a Christian Country singer Kevin Rowe and The Prodigal Sons, nice fella, he gave me a CD. Then as we were leaving there was a beautiful sunset and I saw my first lightning bugs of the trip, they are so cool.
Day 6 Destination Cookeville, TN, 347 miles. This is my Missing Man Formation day. Betty was all shined up and ready. After our first fuel stop I was staged way up front behind the Route Coordinator Glen “Wombat” Wagener. A little bit nervous, but I got this. Just prior to departure I was briefed by Ray “Cornman” Cornesser the Missing Man Coordinator: Stay tight and keep the spot to your left clear, don’t let anyone in no matter what! And remember “we have your six.” (A pilot’s phrase for positioning at 6 and 12 on the clock as in, “We have your back.”) We rode out of there and onto the highway, a huge weight on my shoulders as I am symbolically riding next to and guarding every soldier who didn’t return from Vietnam. What an honor to be able to ride here now for them. You are not forgotten! 107 miles from Brownsville to Dickson, AR, that I will never forget.
After that leg of the run I was greeted and thanked for my contribution to honor the Missing Man by all the leadership and the Midway Route Lead Chaplain who asked if I was ok. Then Mr. Ray “Cornman” Cornesser, Missing Man Coordinator, awarded me a commemorative Missing Man coin, patch, decal and pin. Wow what a great feeling to have done this for those who can’t, tearing up as I write this, you would too.
Next stop was Dickson Cumberland Presbyterian Church, another welcomed meal donation. Just outside on the hill stood a detail of prisoners escorted by sheriffs and who were waiting to earn their meal by cleaning up after our visit, they were unmistakable in their thick black and white striped suits. On to Cookeville, where we were met by a police escort at the off ramp and routed seven blocks through town. For as far as you can see down the streets there were people waving American flags and cheering us on as we rode past; people were coming out of homes and buildings waving. I guess they got the memo. What a great welcome! Then we turned onto the next street and there were three more blocks of the same. I believe we are a hit in this town, this is by far the best reception yet as we pulled into their city hall parking lot under a huge American flag hanging from their fire truck.
Inside was yet another fine donated meal with bags of goodies for us at all the tables. During dinner we were entertained by country music star Aaron Tippin, his wife Thea and son Ted, they sang “You Have Gotta Stand for Something,” “Kiss This” and “Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagle Fly.” Wow this trip just keeps getting better, apparently this town bleeds red, white and blue, they love bikes and the culture and their commerce is outstanding. What a great place to have seen. They made us very welcome and wanted us to know they will continue to back our cause 100%. Helmets off to you Cookeville, TN.
Day 7 Destination Asheville, NC, 224 miles. After staging we were invited into the Cookeville Sam’s Club for shopping, coffee and pastries with a complimentary membership for the day, it was 6:30 am so I know that was just for us. This day’s ride brought us to Knoxville, TN, where we were escorted down town to the Veterans War Memorial. All our bikes filled up the street as we parked right there adjacent to the park and a beautiful fountain that pulsates like the one in Atlanta. This was a welcoming spot and a perfect opportunity for more tradition as some of the road guards walked through the fountain in the blazing humid heat to cool off. Zoe and Roxy, a couple of dogs who ride behind one of the bikes in their custom trailer, got to play some fetch in the park and then go cool off in the fountain as well, road dogs’ lives matter too.
Now for some Tennessee BBQ chicken and ribs and bagpipe music donated for our run. There was a group of gals who greeted us before the memorial with large American flags, more honor. “Thank You, I will carry it forward,” I told them. Leaving Knoxville was difficult, traffic was stop and go and at times very challenging; we did get broken up but we all know trucks and cars are bigger than us and they have more brakes so we moved on and re-grouped up ahead.
Later that day I had to tap out, a term used for when your bike has a mechanical issue, you don’t feel safe or in my case my luggage was coming loose. I gave a thumbs-up to the platoons as they roared by and when the group tail gunner stopped and asked if I was ok, I pointed to the bag, told him “yes” and he zoomed off. Next sound I heard was almost like crickets, for the first time on this trip it was quiet, the roar and our whole concession was gone out of sight. So I got Betty and my luggage all strapped up and off I went; trying to catch up while negotiating the trucks who were trying to pass each other ahead was interesting. Just as I was ready to pull over and navigate with my itinerary, I saw some bikes on the off ramp ahead, whew just made it, so I squeezed my way up into the fuel line, got fuel and staged with my platoon. Normally I would have to ride the rest of the day in the back, I was lucky.
From there we went to Ashville H-D where they had a cool band there playing Tom Petty songs. There was some good NC BBQ and lots of donated cookies. Here we met our NC State Coordinator Richard “Bam Bam” House; can’t miss him wearing his green beret and sporting chaps with patches all over them, what a great host. Just outside there were four semi trucks with patriotic commemorative wraps and they were to be headed east to Washington D.C. as well.
Day 8 Destination Falcon, NC, 295 miles. Seems like almost every overpass in NC has patriots on it waving flags and cheering us on, fire trucks, police and even ambulances were in on the mix. Arriving in Silver City you could smell the BBQ about a half mile away. Pentecostal Holiness Church prepared a great meal with smoked steaks for everyone, that’s right, they were smoked and they were delicious. We were seated under a huge tent behind the church next to the woods. After the meal we stood in line and had fresh made ice cream scooped right out of the churn. This is donated food, what a great trip. On the way back to the bike I stopped and got a t-shirt from the RFTW trailer that has been at every stop, the merchandise rolls with us. There I saw Yankee Poodle soliciting walks from the girls passing by, Clever Dawg. Joining us here were members of the NC Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club along with the NC State Troopers, now that’s a badass escort.
Just down the road five miles, we were welcomed to Chatham Middle School where we were serenaded by a band and a choir of students whose conductors are married to each other, so it played out into a fun competition for the teenagers performing. Leaving there we were warned to stay tight in our formation as the troopers will be swarming us like bees going down the highway to block off exits. They weren’t kidding, those troopers screamed by going well over 100 mph over the next thirty miles or so then the troopers signed off in style. We crested over a hill and there they all were on the right side of the freeway on the last onramp, bikes lined up, taller officers to the left and helmets in hand, all at attention and saluting us as we rode past. I’m gonna need a larger helmet if my head gets any bigger. Wow now that was professionalism to the max.
We arrived in Falcon, NC, to another show of patriotism and a heartwarming place at Falcon Children’s Home where we witnessed the graduation of a group of orphaned students who would have had no one to see them graduate; two of the girls had babies with them. Some of the students there had been abandoned as well. It’s good to see places like that. Those young people would have just been left behind, I’m so glad we were there for them even if it was just for the afternoon, they all thanked us as we left to go eat the fine grilled chicken meal provided. Then released on our own to nearby Fayetteville, NC, where our hotel was
Day 9 Destination Ashland, VA, 270 miles. Before departing Fayetteville, NC, we were asked if anyone had any “oranges” (wink wink, meaning firearms), that they needed to be placed in the crate provided by RFTW since we would be entering a Federal installation. The crate and oranges were secured and we were escorted onto Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. We were routed through the base. Airmen stopped vehicles and came out of buildings to show support for us, and the big surprise for us ahead was that they took us out onto the runway; the whole Midway RFTW Procession was on the runway, this has never happened before!
As we came to a stop on the runway ahead we saw four F-15E Strike Eagle Aircraft from the 4th Fighter Wing approaching. They flew low and fast right over our heads moving into the Missing Man Formation, where one of the inside jets roared straight up till it was out of sight. That is the best show of respect I’ve ever seen, WOW! We were escorted to the end of the runway where there was an F-15E and a KC-135R there for display. We were allowed to take photos and got a tour of the tanker aircraft. The Commander came out and thanked us personally for what we were doing. Helmets off to the 4th Fighter Wing, well done.
Next stop was Hopewell, VA, at the site of their Moose Lodge that was lost due to a fire in February. They have hosted us for many years. RFTW Midway Route presented them with a check for over $2,000 gathered during this run just from our riders’ donations to help with repairs. Our Route Coordinator Glenn “Wombat” Waggener pledged that he would match the donation. Hopewell VFW was very grateful. Ashland, VA was right down the road so we went on our own. I put Betty away for the night and had some KFC, first meal of the trip not donated.
Day 10 Destination Quantico, VA, and then Arlington, 94 miles. Arriving at Quantico National Museum of the Marine Corps you could see the huge building from a mile away, with very distinctive mirrored architecture. We pulled all now 390 bikes up right in front of the entrance; Betty had a great view of the building, too bad she couldn’t come in with us. If you ever get the chance to see this place, it’s really a spectacular modern museum telling the story of the USMC from the beginning. There are lifelike displays of soldiers and aircraft are hanging from the sky indoors as if you are in a battle with them, during the national anthem I spotted one of the road guards rendering a salute from the balcony above the helicopter display, really cool photo I think. Also there’s a great gift shop inside where I found a rare Desert Storm Veteran hat that I had been searching for. Glad I came for those who can’t. From there we rolled into Arlington City where the host hotel was. I went up to Rockville, Maryland, to stay with my friends Nicki and Paul who were hosting my stay.
Day 11 Destination Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Memorial Wall. As an FNG I was able to join the other two routes’ FNGs. Only 400 bikes were allowed into Arlington National Cemetery. This is hallowed ground. Utmost respect is a must. Betty got to park amongst our nation’s fallen heroes. Displayed on her windscreen are the bios of the two KIA soldiers who we brought across this nation to leave at the wall, a tradition to bring awareness. All the items left there are removed to be cataloged for recognition, in the past someone has even left a motorcycle there. We had some time to reflect through the cemetery, you can see some riders reading stones, perhaps of their relatives. It’s a very sad place of honor for sure.
There were two riders from our route who were selected to be in a detail to lay the wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a ceremony that has become Memorial Day tradition. I witnessed the changing of the guard there; those soldiers are perfect in what they do as they inspect the weapon of their relief soldier to ensure it is in flawless working condition. They guard this ground with their lives 24 hours a day continuously in any weather; there are grooves worn in the pavement where they pace back and forth. The Unknown Soldier’s tomb has the best view of Our Nation’s Capital below. No horns to form up will be sounded in the cemetery, only discreet word of mouth. We all returned to the bikes and rolled out together.
We arrived adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial and we were allowed to park our bikes in the park on the grass. It was just a short walk across the street where we all met up on the steps for our Mission Complete plaque presentation and group photo. It was really cool to be here doing this on my birthday, and this being the first time back here since I was born. After the bagpipes played, our crowd started to sing Happy Birthday, somebody said how cool to get 1,500 bikers to sing Happy Birthday. I said, “It’s my birthday too,” so everyone around me congratulated me as well.
After our group photo we began our walk over to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, as an FNG it’s a tradition to get someone who has been there before to turn your badge upside-down. I chose Brandy Godinez. She and her Father Jesus Godinez are Gold Star Family members. Brandy was honored to do this for me. She helped me locate the soldiers’ names on the Wall whose bios I had brought with me. And right there at the Wall, Panel 25 where Michael Nakashima’s name is engraved amongst his fallen platoon brothers, Brandy turned my badge over and now my mission was complete, and yes I am tearing up again as I write this. I hugged her and wept, it’s such an emotional experience.
You travel across this great country for this cause to bring this message of healing for all the people you’ve met along the way and told you will bring their message there too, and for all of those who can’t. Betty and I did it for you. God Bless America and our troops.