Ride of the Patriots marks 20 years on Memorial Day weekend
FAIRFAX, Va. — Memorial Day weekend is fast approaching, and the holiday brings parades, ceremonies and silent wakes in memory of the American military men and women who died while serving.
Not all the Memorial Day events will be quiet, though. Some, like the Ride of the Patriots in Fairfax, Va., on May 27, will be downright noisy.
Marking its 20th year, the thousands-strong motorcycle ride begins on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend at Patriot Harley-Davidson in Virginia and ends at the Pentagon.
There, the bikers – many of them veterans – will join Rolling Thunder, a much larger nonprofit advocacy group that rides to bring attention to the plight of prisoners of war and those missing in action. From the staging area at the Pentagon, Rolling Thunder — along with smaller groups like Ride of the Patriots — heads to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Ken Lyons, one of the coordinators for Ride of the Patriots, said the group started small, but now has 4,000 motorcycles taking part in the ride to the Pentagon.
Lyons, who jokes that he was once the “oldest second lieutenant in the Army,” said people show up to ride for a variety of reasons — camaraderie, Memorial Day observance or simply the fun of taking a bike on an empty stretch of road. (Police cordon off sections of the road for the ride.)
There is one theme that ties riders together over Memorial Day, Lyons said. “We all know people who were in the military,” he said. “We all know people who went there and didn’t come back.”
Many of the riders are veterans. Some, like Don Withrow, have multiple combat deployments under their belts. Withrow, 73, is the “Boss Hog” of the Ride of the Patriots, a job he sums up colloquially as “the buck stops here.” Withrow has seen the ride grow from a loosely organized group of bikers focused on bringing together Vietnam War vets into a force that unites veterans from wars past and present.
“We found that the more we talked to people … they wanted more, they wanted more meaning for it,” Withrow said. “So, we started reaching back to Korea and to WWII to get some of those veterans to come in and talk to the folks.”
Withrow, a retired Army officer who deployed twice to Vietnam, said the ride has had a big impact on bridging the gap between veterans from different eras.
“You start learning tons of stuff about what they went through and how different it was then to what I experienced,” he said. “There is such a difference between you now and me then, and the circumstances we were in.”
Retired Staff Sgt. Allen Foster, an Army veteran who left the service in 2010, has done the ride for the past five years. He said the sense of community among its members has been important to his return to civilian life.
“It’s really good because there is something missing when you retire. You miss that camaraderie, you miss having people that understand what you’ve been through and where you’re coming from,” he said. “I bought a motorcycle, but I inherited a family.”
Lyons estimates that 8,000 people will attend this year’s ride. The streets of Fairfax will be lined, as they are every year, with spectators and well-wishers.
Longtime rider Holly Russo, an Air Force veteran, said the sight of a community coming together still moves her.
“We feel it’s important to remember all the other vets, not only the ones who came home, but more importantly the ones that didn’t come home,” she said. “That many people coming together for that is awesome.”