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Run for the Wall: “Riding for Those Who Can’t”

Gilpin couple bikes to honor our nation’s military

by Patty Unruh

“There is never a ‘dry eye’ day,” is Jed Gilman’s assessment about Run For The Wall (RFTW), a huge cross-country motorcycle mission conducted in honor of our nation’s veterans each May.

Jed and Stephanie are friends of mine, and I visited with them this week about the extraordinary journey from which they had recently returned. The Gilmans were filled with understandable emotion as they spoke of the overwhelming support shown for the bikers, veterans, and active-duty military members across our country.

Background

RFTW, a journey from California to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., took place May 16-26. The Gilmans were among the approximately 1,800 participants who rode to show they cared. 2018 was the event’s 30th anniversary. The ride is healing for vets that never got welcomed home or are still carrying baggage.

The organization was founded in 1988 by Vietnam veterans to recognize the sacrifices and contributions made by all veterans who have served our country. Veterans of recent conflicts, those currently on active duty, and non-veteran supporters are all welcome to ride.

The motto of the group is “We ride for those who can’t,” including those missing, killed in action, or disabled. RFTW’s mission is to promote healing of all veterans and their families, to call for an accounting of all prisoners of war and those missing in action, to honor the memory of those killed in action from all wars, and to support our military personnel all over the world.

The Run spans ten days, covers nearly 3,000 miles, and includes those who served in five wars, according to the Run’s website, www.rftw.us. The site notes that it is the largest and longest organized cross-country motorcycle run of its kind in the world.

The group’s literature states that there are 83,000 soldiers who have been killed in action or are missing in action. The remains of hundreds of soldiers have been recovered, but “we must continue to remain vigilant in the pursuit to bring our missing home.”

The trip is not a sight-seeing tour, but rather, a mission. It is highly regimented and physically tiring. Riders may participate on one of three routes – Central, Southern, and Midway. All routes begin in southern California in the town of Ontario.

An undertaking this huge must have leadership. Leaders include state coordinators, route coordinators, road guards who direct traffic, “raffle rousers” who raise money for charitable causes adopted by the Run, ambassador teams who build goodwill, and many more.

The Gilmans

Jed rode his 2017 Harley-Davidson Road Glide, and Stephanie hopped astride her 2017 Harley Street Glide for the Central route adventure, which crosses eleven states, among which were Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. The Southern and Midway routes cross nine states. Although the Gilmans have gone the whole route in previous years, they went only part of the way this year, in order to return for a granddaughter’s graduation.

They are quick to note that the Run, once experienced, grows on you. This was Jed’s sixth and Stephanie’s fifth consecutive year to participate. Jed has ridden all the way for four of his six missions and has also been part of the leadership.

Jed was in the U.S. Army for seven years as an intelligence analyst. He served at Ft. Hood, Texas, for two years and at Stuttgart, Germany, for two years, then got a support staff job at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center for three years.

He also has a very personal reason for riding.

“I lost a brother in Viet Nam and thought this would be a good thing for me to do.”

One of Jed’s seven brothers, Frederick E. Gilman, was killed in 1970 and is listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

Jed says, “At least I know where my brother is buried – Harristown, Illinois. There are sons and daughters, spouses, and siblings who still don’t know.”

Stephanie’s story is somewhat different. Her father was in the military for four years, but he never talked about his experience, so she grew up not knowing or having an interest in the military.

“I do care now. This has changed my heart and attitude and the way I see our country today.”

How It Works

Stephanie describes the RFTW procedure.

“You ride wheel to wheel and side by side the whole way across the country,” she relates. “It’s very regimented and fatiguing. We get as close together as we can, and we leave and arrive as a pack. Every time we stop, they blow a horn that signals you have five minutes to be back on your bike and ready to go. They can’t wait – people have shut down their businesses for you, so you have to stay on schedule.”

The bikers ride in ten platoons of about 25 people each, and they must stick with their platoon. Each platoon is headed by a leader and an assistant. At the rear of the group are the tail gunners, who help anyone who is sick, has a machinery breakdown, or other issue.

If your cycle breaks down, RFTW has trailers and will transport you to a repair shop or otherwise make sure you get to D.C.

About every 100 miles or so, the platoons stop to put in a few gallons of gas. Gas stations close down to everyone but the bikers. Incredibly, 400 bikers can fuel up in 20 minutes by fueling two abreast, on both sides of the pump.

As for lodging, bikers can camp for free or stay in a motel if they are willing to cover that cost.

Most meals and fuel are actually provided by contributors, including chambers of commerce, restaurants, women’s auxiliaries, American Legion and VFW posts, senior centers, rider clubs, elementary schools, colleges, and churches. Supporters plan and raise money all year to serve these strangers riding on a mission. With all the generous community donations to RFTW bikers, a participant could actually do the whole trip for under a hundred dollars.

The Bikers

“You make the greatest friends in the world all over the country,” the Gilmans say. “There’s lots of humor and camaraderie. We can count on each other while we are accomplishing something.”

Everyone has a road name that relates to an actual experience, like Rockie, Boomer, Biker Daddy, Speedo, or Chipmunk. Jed is “Squirt Gun” – apparently because he seems harmless – and Stephanie is “Birdseye.” That moniker was acquired when a bird left a “blessing” on her sunglasses as she tooled along.

Newbies to the journey are called FNG’s – lingo for “Fine New Guy (or Gal).” The FNG’s get the honor of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Typically, motorcycles are not allowed there, but 400 new Runners from RFTW are permitted for this ceremony.

Dogs are even part of the pack. “General,” a therapy dog who served as an ambassador for the Run, got to ride in a pack on his biker’s chest.

The bikers also hold religious services. A corps of chaplains rides and does church services on Sundays. They are there for emotional support and other needs and also bless the bikes of anyone who asks.

The Communities and Giving Back

Jed and Stephanie, along with nearly all the other riders, find the experience emotionally overwhelming. After the start in California, motorcyclists rumble through a number of small towns, including Gallup, New Mexico, Pueblo, Colorado, Goodland, Kansas, and Rainelle, West Virginia. Communities turn out en masse, from little children to aged veterans. They line streets and overpasses, saluting, waving flags and holding signs in support.

“Some people will hold up pictures of loved ones they lost or messages of thanks. It’s just a fleeting moment, one glance and you’re past, but it’s unforgettable.”

Stephanie recalls the royal welcome given by Eagle Nest, New Mexico, population 290.

“We had over 500 people, and they fed us with homemade meals!”

Jed adds, “You walk through the line thanking the people, and they say ‘No, thank YOU.’ That’s what they say everywhere.”

Each stop is different. A town mayor may come out, there may be entertainment by school children, or entire small communities may shut down for the occasion. Native Americans in Gallup, New Mexico, put on their tribal dance, allowing the motorcyclists to join in the circle. New Mexico also provided a motorcycle police escort across the state from the New Mexico border to the Colorado border.

“They only do for that for us and the president!” Jed exclaims of the honor accorded RFTW.

He also recalls folks braving turbulent weather in Kansas. “A couple years back, we were in potential tornado weather, with hail and torrential rains. You can’t shut down 400 motorcycles on the highway and take cover, so you continue to ride. We could hardly see to ride, but we still made out an older gentlemen standing alone on an overpass, saluting. He stood at attention the whole time, being pelted by hail.”

Jed’s favorite location is Rainelle, West Virginia, a poor mining town whose coal mines have been shut down. In spite of their poverty, the people still go out of their way to support the RFTW mission.

“The town shuts down at noon, and we roll in. The school kids come out to meet us, and they ask your name and what branch of the service you were in. They sign your shirt, and you sign theirs. It’s been a 30-year tradition for them.”

RFTW has given back to Rainelle, raising about $24,000 to help the town build a brand new school. Last summer Rainelle got flooded out, and RFTW members delivered money and clothing to help them recover.

Group members also go to VA hospitals to visit patients who never otherwise get visitors.

The bikers met two Medal of Honor recipients on this trip. One recipient, Leroy Petry, rode with the group a couple of years ago. He received his medal because he picked up a live grenade and tossed it away, getting his right hand blown off. He now has a mechanical hand. RFTW built a trike for him to ride. In fact, every year RFTW donates a custom-modified motorcycle to an injured vet.

Mission Accomplished

The itinerary finished at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, May 26, with the Mission Accomplished Plaque presentation at the Wall. All riders also gathered for a group photo on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial. On Sunday, bikers participated in the Rolling Thunder Parade through the city.

Stephanie encourages others to try the Run. “I wish everybody could experience it. It would change their hearts. They would see what America is truly about.”

If you’d like to ride with the pack next year, the dates are May 15-25. See www.rftw.us.

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