Words & Photos By Bryan Harley
The ride to Camarillo, though, was just the warm-up. To get the group further familiarized with their Indian tourers and baggers, Frey had arranged for us to take a basic rider’s training course once we arrived. Learn to Ride VC instructors Bob Drummond and Jose Padron put our group through the paces, from hard braking to cornering drills and crazy eights in and around cones to emergency swerving. For many it was the first time back on a motorcycle or the first time commandeering one equipped with a sidecar, but it didn’t take long before everybody had learned the nuances of the big bikes and had gained confidence in their riding abilities. The Indian tourers are dialed in properly, from a chassis that makes the bikes easy to manage to a suspension arrangement that helps they track true, and riders acclimated to its characteristics quickly. Lisa Niner’s flat track skills reflected in the way she hustled an Indian Chieftain around and Johnny Killmore’s expertise as a pro sidecar racer shone as he “flew the chair,” deftly slinging the sidecar in the air at will.
“That’s the oldest Brough in the world right there, 1920-21, they only built three or four that year. The fastest is the SS 100 over here,” Leno said.
Not surprisingly, the famous roadster with the M47 Patton tank engine was a big hit with the veterans.
“We put Bosch fuel injection and twin turbos on it,” Leno said before quoting mind-numbing horsepower numbers.
The following morning the regiment known as Bags Down, Kickstands Up was initiated as the first official day of the ride commenced. Travel bags had to be down early each morning to be put in the support trailer, and kickstands had to be up at a set time to keep the group on schedule. Before scurrying up Angeles Crest, one of the most popular motorcycling roads in SoCal, we gathered at Sun Valley Fire Station #77 for a Grand Send-Off celebration. Cameras were rolling when we pulled in: Los Angeles TV station KTLA was shooting a feature on the Veterans Charity Ride, the shoot spearheaded by longtime KTLA personality Gayle Anderson. First responders and several veteran motorcycling clubs filled the firehouse to give the veterans a proper send-off. Sirens from a police escort serenaded our departure as we formed a posse with the LAFD Fire Hawgs and rolled out of town.
The veterans were seated center stage under a pavilion as Moab’s community leaders took turns paying tribute to their arrival, none more poignantly Moab Police Chief Jim Winder.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a little humbling standing up here before you. Watching you come in was an emotional experience,” said Winder. “So somebody walked up to me just a few minutes ago and said, ‘We honor your service in blue.’ It made me really think of the term service. Yes, in law enforcement we provide a service to this community and to this nation, but I kind of consider law enforcement the little brother. The big brother is those that have protected this nation and provided such service and dedication and placed themselves at such great risk. It’s an honor for people to come up and thank us, but I tell you no amount of thanks is enough for what all of you have done.”
As the ceremony wound down, a mountain of a man played the theme song of every branch of service on his bagpipe, from The Army Goes Rolling Along to Wild Blue Yonder. The veterans proudly raised their hands as their theme played. The celebration culminated in countless hugs and handshakes between veterans and the crowd.
During the nine-day journey from Los Angeles and Sturgis our group made several visits to veterans’ memorials. The stop at the 10th Mountain Division Memorial at Tennessee Pass, Colorado, was particularly emotional. Perhaps this was because of the veterans seeing“990 Comrades in Arms Who Gave Their Lives on the World War II Battlefields of Italy and the Aleutian Islands” inscribed on a giant wall. Somberness painted veterans’ faces in hues of sorrow as heads bowed in reverence to the fallen. Meanwhile the visit to the bronze statue commemorating Captain William H. “Pyro” DuBois Jr. had a more celebratory tone, thanks to a visit from special guests William “Ham” DuBois and his wife, Donna, the fallen pilot’s parents. Pyro was a talented airman and recipient of two Top Gun awards who “lost his life in the Middle East while flying in support of Operation Inherent Resolve when his F-16 crashed in the desert after making sure his wingman had landed safely.” His parents shared how they created Pyro’s Wings Foundation” in his honor to provide financial support to future combat pilots.
After nine days and 1900 miles on the road, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was finally in sight. For several of the veterans it would be their first visit to Sturgis which pumped up excitement levels. One of my newfound friends, Richie “Two Chairs” Neider, had always wanted to ride to Sturgis but had given up the dream once he lost use of his legs. Now that dream was about to be a reality. Seeing the determination on veteran Moses Sonera’s face to make it all the way to Sturgis, to push through the pain and discomfort caused by this prosthetic, was inspiring to say the least. We paraded up Main Street with full pomp and circumstance, people waving and taking pictures as we rode by. Main Street barraged the senses, banners flapping above the street, sidewalks teaming with a circus of women in body paint and muscle-bound men in leather vests, music spilling out of One-Eyed Jacks and the Loud American Roadhouse, and motorcycles everywhere. Pulling into Indian Motorcycle of Sturgis, riders ahead of me disappeared into a sea of red, white, and blue. Hopping off our bikes, veterans’ faces filled with a sense of accomplishment. Monster Energy girls fueled the party as the vets hugged one another, engulfed by the cheers of family and friends.
For me the moment was a bit melancholy. I’d grown fond of this group and was sad we’d no longer be riding together. Strangers had grown into friends. But I was happy to see that Dave Frey’s moto therapy program had worked. It had taken veterans who suffer from PTSD and who struggle with being in crowds and made them feel comfortable again in social settings. I’ve seen how the program has given veterans who let their disabilities hold them back rejuvenated with the attitude that there’s nothing they can’t do. I’ve witnessed how getting veterans together who have been through the same traumatic experiences brings about healing when they open up to one another. I’ve observed how the therapy of riding a motorcycle can light up the faces of veterans when they climb behind the handlebars. Although I’ve had the privilege of taking part in many rides in my career as a motojournalist, sharing the road with the Veterans Charity Ride to Sturgis was one of those rare opportunities to experience something extraordinary, one that I’ll forever be grateful for.