The 25th Run to the Wall

The 25th Run to the Wall

Pat Rosales
Pat Rosales at Modesto VFW Post 3199 in 2015

I am an avid motorcyclist who lives in Modesto, a town located in the heart of the Great Central Valley of California. I own a Yamaha 1100 V-Star, and my road handle, or nickname, is ‘Greasesister’, a term of endearment earned during my service as a mechanic in the US Army. For many years, I felt the desire to visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC as a way to show my appreciation for our country and to honor all of America’s men and women who are veterans of foreign wars. I am a war veteran myself, having served overseas during Desert Storm, and I support veteran’s causes and donate my time to volunteer efforts at the local VFW Post 3199 here in Modesto.

Two years ago, in 2013, I decided to make my dream a reality and participate in the 25th Run for the Wall, a gathering of veterans and motorcycle riders from around the country who planned to rally together at the Vietnam Memorial in DC. My closest friend, Donna Huggins, was serving with the US Air Force in Afghanistan, and I thought I would honor my friend and commemorate the service of US veterans everywhere by participating in the ride, an event organized by Rolling Thunder.

The term Rolling Thunder was the code name given to B52 bombing missions during the Vietnam War and in 1988, several veterans, frustrated that the voice for missing soldiers was not loud enough, planned a group motorcycle ride to the Vietnam Wall for Memorial Day. Choosing the Memorial Day weekend for the event, they envisioned the noisy arrival of the motorcycles coming across the Arlington Memorial Bridge as, “the sound of rolling thunder.” Now with more than a million riders and spectators combined, Rolling Thunder has become an annual event, an emotional display of patriotism and respect for all those who defend and serve our country.

The actual ride, the Run for the Wall, has its own special mission. The ride would provide veterans, especially those from the Vietnam era, an outlet for emotional healing, it would call attention to prisoners of war and remind us of those missing in action, and it would honor those killed in conflict. I could support this mission without reservation.

Through the Rolling Thunder website, I searched for other riders committed to making the trip to DC from Southern California. Online, I found a form for potential roommates, which I filled out and submitted. Later, I received an email from a would-be roommate, a woman named Denise. Although not a veteran, the 50-year-old motorcyclist was participating in the ride to honor the service of others. Her road handle was ‘Smiling Rider’. I told Denise that I liked to drink beer and that I snored, and Denise said that she liked to drink beer as well, and had once slept through a riot. We seemed compatible and since Denise had already reserved rooms and had a defined traveling itinerary, I decided to join her. Now, my arrangements for the trip to DC were set.

I told my friends at the VFW about my plans for the journey. When the time to leave drew close, they threw a goodbye and good luck party for me. Donna’s husband John was there, along with Linda Thompson and Becky Dayton. Other friends and supporters attended as well, and we feasted on homemade cakes and other treats.

I set off from Modesto alone and spent May 12, Mother’s Day, with family in Delano, a town in the southern part of the Central Valley near Bakersfield. Leaving Delano, I cruised south up and out of the valley and rode through the mountains before descending into Los Angeles County and arriving at the town of Rancho Cucamonga, where other riders participating in the run to DC were marshaling on May 14.

In Rancho Cucamonga, I met my fellow travelers, several hundred motorcyclists gathered together, along with bikes laden with saddlebags and luggage packs, ready to head east to DC. The mood was festive and upbeat, there were many veterans present, and among the group as a whole, men outnumbered the women. My fellow riders were dedicating their Run to the Wall for many varied and personal meanings: to remember fallen comrades, for relatives, and to honor friends. For the first time I met my future roommate and traveling partner, Denise.

We all attended initial briefings where speakers reviewed the plans for the trip and went over the rules for our ride. Riders would set out in groups called platoons that left at intervals. Riders who had participated in multiple Runs to the Wall would populate the first platoons. Riders participating in their first Run to the Wall were called FNGs, or fucking new guys, and they rode in the last platoon. Every platoon had a number and that number went on your bike or windscreen; if you changed platoons, you had to get a new number. Speakers talked about the dangers of riding in large groups and asked the cyclists in platoons not to sightsee, but keep their eyes on the wheels in front and beside of them and not to swerve in their lanes.

During the ride to DC, we would mostly be on our own for breakfast. Organizers had scheduled lunches at VFW Posts, American Legions, and schools along the way that had volunteered to support the Run for the Wall. Scheduled dinners were often at Harley dealers, where riders could enjoy local BBQ and dealers would give away commemorative bandanas and other souvenirs. When the group traveled through big cities, the local police would provide escorts so everyone could stay together.

The trip to DC would consist of 10 days of riding with several layover days; the group planned to arrive in DC on May 27, Memorial Day. There would be a mandatory briefing and safety meeting every morning, and then on to the chaplains trailer for a prayer before leaving for the day. Support groups called field teams would assist the riders on their journey. Field teams consisted of road guards and medics that would take care of you and your motorcycle if you encountered a problem. If a motorcyclist had an accident or mechanical issue of any kind, the organizers instructed the other riders to keep going, and to let the field teams following the platoons handle emergencies.

The organizers informed us that the field teams would work the cross-country route by dispensing water, helping with any breakdowns, running errands on the road, ministering to those in need, organizing help, trailering disabled bikes, and whatever else the riders required. The platoons would stop for gas every 90 miles. The field teams would handle the fuel; you just pulled into the gas station with your riding platoon and filled up. New riders would join the group along the route to DC, and a registration period every morning would assign the new riders numbers and put them in platoons.

After these detailed initial briefings, we all knew what was in store for us in the coming weeks. The trip from the Los Angeles area to DC followed two routes; one went north to Interstate 40 (I-40), and the other route started east on I-10. Denise had made reservations for the southern route. We mounted up and the platoons slowly departed Rancho Cucamonga and followed I-10 some 330 miles to Buckeye Arizona, a town near Phoenix. We quickly learned how stressful and tiring it was riding in the close quarters of the platoons; there was no time to enjoy the scenery or look to the horizon. When we rolled down the highway, or stopped at points along the way for food or fuel, the overpasses and sides of the road were crowded with onlookers. Families and kids stood waving to us and holding signs, and I was always tempted to look at what was happening around me instead of keeping my concentration centered on my bike and the other riders close by.

The following day, we continued on to Las Cruces, where we arrived about 6 pm after 388 miles of highway riding. The platoons stopped at a Las Cruces Harley dealer near I-10, where city officials welcomed us and treated the group to a complimentary dinner. On Friday morning, caravan riders ate breakfast at 6 am in an American Legion hall, a breakfast donated by a local VFW Post.

From there, the caravan traveled to Veterans Memorial Park to participate in a public wreath laying ceremony. The park is the home of the Bataan Memorial Monument and is dedicated to the victims of the WWII Bataan Death March. The memorial features a statue of three exhausted soldiers assisting each other as they work their way down a lane of footprints imbedded in concrete, as if passing ghosts had left the footprints in commemoration of those who had perished on that terrible march. There was also a monument dedicated to all those who had served in past wars. After the wreath laying ceremony, members of a local Indian tribe blessed our bikes in a traditional smoke ceremony and we returned to the highway and got on with our journey.

From Las Cruces, we drove 330 miles to Odessa, Texas. As before, riding in the platoons was taxing and demanding, bikers had to keep their eyes on the wheels in front and alongside of them at all times, and be careful not to swerve. In particular, it was a challenge to ride that way for long periods since the caravan of platoons was like a giant slinky. As platoons left and started down the highway, those platoons in the rear had to go faster to keep up.

We went through El Paso and south along the Mexican border to Van Horn, where we swung to the east and rode up over the Davis Mountains. Descending to the desert floor, we came to a junction where we departed the I-10 and followed I-20 east towards Atlanta.

There were always several accidents a day among the platoons. Field teams and medics took care of accidents and injuries, and the other riders kept moving towards the next destination as instructed. Being in the last platoon, we always arrived late at our evening’s stop, and Odessa was no exception.

After Odessa, we travelled 340 miles to the town of Grand Prairie just west of Dallas. While there, we listened to a motivational speaker, a marine that was badly burned in combat and had lost both ears. From Grand Prairie, we went on to our next stop, Monroe, Louisiana, 305 miles distant. As we rode through East Texas, we encountered the first pine and hardwood trees so evident in the East.

During the ride, just before Shreveport, a Harley Davidson in the last platoon rear-ended my bike, knocked off the rear lights, and jammed up my fender. Because of the accident, none of my lights worked. I stayed by the side of the road and one of the field teams came by to assist me, and they trailered my bike into Shreveport. A local Harley dealer reattached my lights and pulled out the fender but the lights were still not working.

Despondent, I watched the platoons leave on their way East as I stayed behind because my motorcycle had no lights. After an hour or two, I said the hell with this, and left anyway. In the next town, I found an Auto Zone parts store and repaired the light fixture on my rear fender so that I now had both rear and brake lights, but still had no working headlights or turn signals. I set off again intent on catching up with my platoon. Riding solo, I felt the wonderful freedom of the road; I could watch the countryside without worrying about the serious business of riding in the platoon and the closeness of those motorcycles surrounding me. I cruised down the highway and saw my fellow riders stopped for fuel and lunch, but I continued on alone into Monroe. While there, a fellow rider did repairs on my wiring system and I finally had a working headlight again.

In a strange coincidence, while chatting with my roommate Denise, I learned that she had a close friend named Rick Fey who was serving in Afghanistan, and that Rick was serving in the same unit as my friend Donna Huggins. I emailed Donna and told her about the accident and the struggles of the day, and Donna surprised me by phoning me from Afghanistan. As always, it was great to talk with her.

I rejoined my platoon when we left Monroe and we rode 210 miles to Meridian, Mississippi. The caravan crossed the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, and it really sank in that we were now in the East.

The next day began with a 150 mile stretch to Birmingham, where we left I-20 and headed northeast on I-59 for 150 miles up to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I remember a bad accident that occurred close to Chattanooga and several riders were seriously hurt, but I never learned the details. From Chattanooga, it was another 300-mile day through a rainstorm up I-81 to Wytheville, Virginia and I melted part of my rain gear on the hot pipes of my bike.

The following day, we rested and took a short ride to Roanoke to visit a VA hospital, and then we toured the World War II D-Day memorial in Bedford, Virginia. It was a needed break and much enjoyed. All along the route, participants in the ride donated to area hospitals and schools, and local kids and adults presented us with tokens to mark our passing, such as dog tags with sayings imprinted on them, as mementos of Rolling Thunder and the Ride to the Wall. In addition, I also had the pleasure of meeting one of Donna’s daughters in Montvale.

On another strange twist, Donna Huggins ex-husband Doug worked as a service manager at a Harley dealership in Roanoke. Denise’s Harley needed an oil change and through the magic of email with Donna in Afghanistan, Donna directed Denise to have her bike serviced at his shop and to ask Doug for the ex-wife discount. Denise followed Donna’s advice and Doug was glad to service her machine at a reduced rate.

Another memorable moment of my stop in Roanoke occurred when Donna’s two daughters and two grandkids picked me at the hotel and treated me to dinner.

From Roanoke, we made the final leg of our cross-country odyssey into DC where a police escort met us and led the platoons into the city and on to their lodgings. I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.

The next day was Memorial Day, the culmination of our efforts. We followed an escorted ride through Arlington National Cemetery and attended a presentation at the Tomb of the Unknowns where we laid a wreath. Next, we rode to the Lincoln Memorial where we gathered on the steps of the memorial for a group picture. Then, finally, came the ride to the Wall. It was a moving experience to arrive at the memorial, a solemn spot important to many veterans in this country. Yet, everything at the Wall was so crowded with riders, Memorial Day visitors, speakers and presentations, that it was hard to get around and appreciate the moment.

We returned to the motel for a final night; Denise and I reminisced about our journey and said our goodbyes. The next day, Denise left on a return trip to CA with a group of riders and I went north to NY to visit an Army friend, Andrea, who I had met at my first duty station at Ft Stewart in Georgia. I followed I-83 north to Harrisburg, picked up Rte 15, and rode that up into New York State. I felt the pure joy of cruising solo again, appreciating the landscape that was rushing past me as I motored up the highway. I found and followed Rte 14 north through the Finger Lakes region to Williamson, a town located a few miles south of Lake Ontario.

Andrea and I spent a grand week together, camping and fishing around Lake Ontario. Andrea kept horses and loved dressage, so I helped her in the stables and enjoyed the serenity of a life lived with animals. One night, her veterinarian came for a visit and we made pizzas with dandelions as one of the toppings. On the rainy days, we visited local VFW posts.

Leaving Andrea, I headed south for Bound Brook, New Jersey to stay with another Army friend, Dominic, who was the first private to serve under my command at Ft Sill in OK. He told me that he appreciated what I had done for him and how I had treated him while he was in the Army. He had grown into a good person; he had a rewarding life and a kid in college at the Citadel. Together, we toured New York City and visited Ground Zero and Little Italy. In a backroom in the Garment District, I bought a few Afghan scarves in honor of my friend Donna who was serving in Afghanistan. Dominic also had a boat, so we cruised off the New Jersey coast and had a wonderful time.

After visiting New Jersey, I returned to DC and got a room at the same Holiday Inn Express where I had stayed during the Run to the Wall. I toured the Holocaust Museum and revisited the Vietnam Memorial Wall where I now had the time and space to stroll the grounds and take it all in. I once again took a tour through Arlington and visited the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, also located on the Arlington National Cemetery grounds. I visited the Iwo Jima Memorial and other memorable DC sights, and recalled my own time in the military and thought about what service and sacrifice to country actually means.

Leaving DC, I set out for Pineville, West Virginia to visit Brenda, another Army friend. At a Subway Sandwich shop along the way, Donna surprised me with a phone call from Afghanistan; this made my day and heightened my mood. Reaching Pineville, I found Brenda’s house, located on a gravel road by a small creek. Livestock grazed openly on the fields and along the roads. Brenda was a nurse at the VA hospital and her husband worked in a coalmine. I stayed for a week, enjoyed the rural scenery, relaxed, played pool, and drank beer.

From Pineville I went to Deals Gap, situated at an elevation of 1988' near the Tennessee North Carolina border, to ride the Tail of the Dragon, a popular motorcycle and sports car route featuring 318 curves over 11 miles. While there, I bought souvenirs and, along with other mementos acquired during the Run for the Wall, shipped a box of collectibles home to Modesto and lightened my load. This area was a biker haven with many shops in the area catering to motorcyclists. I bought a good set of Frogs Toggs rain gear to replace the plastic set I had melted against my engine on the way to Roanoke.

Leaving Deals Gap, I toured the National Quilting Museum in Paducah, Kentucky and then rode to visit a childhood friend, Verna that now owned a restaurant in Tennessee. I saw the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, and toured through Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. I enjoyed seeing the country and felt inspired by riding through the wide-open spaces of the West. Yet the nights were lonely and I had been on my own for a while; I wished I had someone with me to enjoy and share such a memorable experience. It was time to be getting home.

I stopped in Ogden Utah to visit Fred, a friend that I had met when stationed in Germany. We went 4 wheeling and had a great time together. But now, I was close to where my odyssey began and the thoughts of my friends, family, and house in Modesto were pulling me homewards.

After one more stop in Reno to visit my sister, I followed I-80 over the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and once again made my way down into the Central Valley of California, and slowly back to my house in Modesto.

It had been a great journey, over six weeks on the road and during that time, I had covered more than 5,000 miles on my Yamaha and the 1100 V-Star had performed admirably. I had returned safely with a wealth of incredible memories, new friendships, and experiences. Among the myriad of places I had visited on my journey, and of the many emotions I had experienced, two things stand out in my memory. The first and most enduring moment came when I visited the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. Second, was the kindness and support that people everywhere had shown me during the Ride to the Wall. I was also very grateful to my friends, some of whom I had not seen in many years, and humbled at the way they opened their homes and hearts to me when I arrived at their door. When you have great friends, they are your friends forever.

At home, I learned that Donna’s deployment to Afghanistan had ended, and that Donna had returned safely to Modesto. Yet we did not get a chance to reunite because soon after her arrival, and before my return, Donna had left Modesto for Virginia to visit her daughters, the same girls that had taken me to dinner weeks ago back in the East. The one moment I had been looking forward to, of reuniting with my dear friend, was now delayed. I would have to wait to share the emotions of this incredible journey with my close friend and comrade in arms, and to celebrate her safe return from Afghanistan, but that is a story for another day.

Yamaha 1100 V-Star
My Yamaha 1100 V-Star Loaded for the Trip

Bataan Memorial Monument
At the Bataan Memorial: Footprints left by the ghosts of soldiers that perished in the Bataan Death March

D-Day Memorial
At the D-Day Memorial in Virginia

A group of riders in DC

In Arlington National Cemetery

Women in Military Service for America Memorial
At the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington

September 11 Ground Zero memorial fountain in New York City
September 11 Ground Zero memorial fountain in New York City


25th Run to the Wall



25th Run to the Wall

25th Run to the Wall

Pat Rosales
Modesto, CA
June, 2015