By Kelley Lane-Sivley, Redstone Rocket StaffMay 15, 2009
While we stumbled out of bed this morning and fumbled with the coffee pot, motorcyclists on the other side of the country said a prayer for the fallen and set their sights east. The Run for the Wall began today and will continue for 11 days. Part of their journey will bring them through Alabama on May 19.
For the 21st year, veterans, servicemembers and supporters are departing Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., where they have gathered for the last several days. They will ride cross country to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. The event is not only to recognize and remember the sacrifices of fallen veterans, but also a journey of healing for those who make the trip.
"The first time you do the run, it's said that you do it for yourself. I believe that. It's a very personal thing," Steve Mozian, Vietnam veteran and Alabama state RFTW coordinator, said. "Each subsequent year, you increase the circle of people you are doing it for."
The group is not strictly military. In addition to the veterans, retirees and servicemembers that participate, there is also a large contingency of civilians. Most of them have a friend or family member that served. For Mike Luna, RFTW volunteer, having not served then makes him want to serve those who did.
"I wasn't in the military. I didn't go to Vietnam. A lot of guys I knew did," Luna said. "I never felt right about it. This is part of how I'm serving them now."
The entourage will begin with several hundred bikes and will grow to about 1,000 before it reaches the nation's capitol. Riders can choose one of two routes. Both routes go through Arizona and New Mexico, although different cities. The central route passes across the middle of the nation, stopping overnight in Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Indiana and West Virginia along the way. The southern route stops in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Riders will pass through Alabama on Tuesday, May 19.
They will spend about nine hours in this state. Most of that time will be spent in the saddle, riding along Interstates 20 and 59. Because of the large number of bikes involved, local highways aren't practical. The Alabama State Troopers will provide a police escort for the group from state border to border.
They will also take some time out of the seat to make a few scheduled visits, about two a day. RFTW participants visit war memorials, veterans hospitals and nursing homes along their route. They also talk to kids at selected elementary schools about the service that the military has given.
"We have lunch with the kids at school," Mozian said. "You have to envision 300 or so weather-beaten people in black leather sitting in those little bitty cafeteria chairs."
Naturally, they must stop for fuel as well. While fueling 300-500 motorcycles in one stop may seem daunting, organizers have it down to a science. They pre-arrange their arrival with truck stops big enough to handle the group. The rest is an exercise in military precision.
"Last year we pushed 350 motorcycles through a gas station is just under 19 minutes," Mozian said. "We're all a bunch of old military guys, so we put a plan together and execute."
In fact, the entire trek is a well-oiled machine. Unlike public poker runs and rallies, RFTW riders roll in tight formation. At the head of the seemingly unending column is the position of highest honor. It is the "Missing Man" formation. The five-man segment has two riders in front and two in the rear. The fifth rider in the middle rides on one side, leaving an open spot for a missing rider, symbolizing those who have fallen. Mozian has had the honor of riding alongside that empty space.
"It's a reminder of all missing in action and prisoners of war from all wars," Mozian said. "From my war, there are still 1,741 people unaccounted for, 32 of them are from Alabama."
He said the mood throughout the trip is happy, yet solemn. It is an emotional rollercoaster, bringing moments of joy and deep grief to its riders. As a Vietnam veteran, Mozian has been deeply affected by the warm reception riders get from the people whose towns they pass through.
"We never got that when we came home, and we needed it," Mozian said. "To get it now takes you right back to that time and your heart heals."
Here is the Interstate-59 overpasses schedule May 19 for the Run for the Wall route in Alabama; all times are approximate:
Aca,!Ac 2:50 p.m., Overpass Double Bridge Road north of Ashville, no interstate entrance;
Aca,!Ac 2:50-2:55, Overpass 174 Gadsden;
Aca,!Ac 2:55-3, Overpass Pleasant Valley Road, no interstate entrance, and Overpass 181 Highway 77;
Aca,!Ac 3:05-3:10, Overpass 188 Reese City;
Aca,!Ac 3:45-4:10, Overpass Local County Road 483 north of Collinsville;
Aca,!Ac 3:50-4:15, Overpass 222 Wills Valley Road, and Overpass Local County Road 608;
Aca,!Ac 4:15-4:25, Overpass Local County Road 51 south of Fort Payne;
Aca,!Ac 4:20-4:40, Overpass Highway 40/117 Valley Head.