WASHINGTON - More than 1,500 motorcyclists arrived at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the 27th annual Run For The Wall this Memorial Day weekend, remembering not only fallen American military personnel, but the 83,000 missing in action since 1945.
James "Gunny" Gregory founded RFTW in 1989 riding from California to the nation's capital, which expanded over the past 27 years to include three routes, beginning and ending at the same locations.
Southern route coordinator, Jim Stone of Fort Worth, Texas, reflected on the reception he and others experienced when returning from Vietnam in contrast to the overwhelming support from the communities in which they ride through.
"(If) you have never heard this grateful nation express its gratitude and pride in what you have accomplished; this is all about to change. This is your welcome home parade," announced Stone, "and it is our mission across this magnificent country."
"It's really a healing time," said Gary Wells, a combat medic from Fruita, Colo., who completed his second ride with RFTW. "It is for me and for a lot of the vets that come on it."
The high level of organization required for moving more than 500 motorcyclists per route through fuel, rest and dinner stops reflected the logistical and operational experience of its military designers.
"They do it out of respect and for the memory of the guys they have lost," explained R. Duane Gryder, a seven year member and Chaplain with RFTW. "They want to make sure that the names that are not on that wall, the missing and the POWs, are accounted for."
Each route contained teams for fuel, ambassadors, chaplains, medical needs, outreach and road guards in order to facilitate all requirements, but the showcase of the group is the missing-man formation. The missing-man formation rides with an open space within the group, escorted from the front and guarded at the rear.
"It gives them the opportunity to say goodbye to that person and to honor the person they're riding for," explains Jenniffer Hudson-Connors, the missing-man coordinator. "It's a chance to honor the person who's not here anymore."
The chance encounters of veterans and family members who randomly meet at the Vietnam wall for the first time since the war amazes Hudson-Connors the most, she said. "It's interesting how people are brought together," she remarked. "Some call it the 'magic of the wall,' I see it as God's hand saying it is time for you two to meet."
The Run For The Wall event brings people together in the present while reflecting on the past for remembrance and healing, but it also challenges the future.
"We want to make sure that the veterans who come home now are treated with respect," Gryder emphasized, "and that we don't leave any missing in action, and we don't leave any POWs.