The warm, early summer sun could not prevent the goose bumps on the arms of those participating in the eighth annual Ride of the Patriots held Sunday morning at the Patriot Harley Davidson dealership in the City of Fairfax.
"You ride today to pay homage and to honor all those who defend the United States and our freedom," said Jeff West, a member of the Fairfax chapter of the Harley Owners Group. "The men and women in uniform who serve our country, they’re the real heroes. They do it without doubt, without question, without hesitation."
The annual ride takes place the Sunday before Memorial Day to make sure the veterans of war, both past and current, are remembered and recognized, West said.
Addressing a parking lot filled with motorcycles, welcomed by the Fairfax High School Marching Band and the Marine Corps Color Guard, West introduced John McKearney, a Navy veteran who spent "a lifetime" in the service of his country, including two tours in Vietnam following two years in the Korean War. McKearney was included in the morning’s opening ceremonies to represent members of all branches of the military that have defended America.
"Memorial Day is too often known for the time to open pools and start up the barbecue," said Rob Lederer, mayor of the city of Fairfax. "Memorial Day is so much more than that. There are men and women around the world who have protected our just and free society. Memorial Day is a time to remember them and their sacrifices for our freedom."
RECENTLY RETURNED from Iraq, Colonel Jay Harmon of Stafford, the keynote speaker of the morning, said he remembered standing on the banks of the Tigris River last Memorial Day with his brigade, thinking of family and dreaming of home.
"The things I love the most in the world are my family, my Army and my Harley," Harmon said to a booming applause from his fellow veterans and motorcyclists. "Thank you for your dedication and unselfish support of our troops. I’m sure the men and women overseas right now are thinking of being home, but knowing you’re here thinking of them today helps a lot."
An event such as the Ride of the Patriots, which started at the Patriot Harley dealership and continued to join the national Rolling Thunder ride at the Pentagon, "captures the true meaning of this holiday," Harmon said. "This is a day of remembrance for those who died in service to our nation. It is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on what it means to be an American."
At the end of the ceremony, it was time for the riders to return to their motorcycles to await the start of the rally. It was a chance for bikers from around the region to share stories of their love of the open road and how remembering those they served with keeps their minds on the meaning of the day.
"I retired from the Navy in September," said Gregory Martin of Centreville, wearing a black Harley T-shirt from Kuwait and a sand-colored camouflage hat from his service in Iraq.
"Now that I’ve retired, I’m officially a veteran," Martin said. "Doing this ride helps people remember why Memorial Day is Memorial Day … It’s an event of great camaraderie."
Having just moved to Northern Virginia from San Diego, this was Martin’s first time participating in the Ride of the Patriots. "Two years ago I was in Kuwait getting ready to go into Iraq. Hearing Colonel Harmon talk this morning reminded me of a lot of things."
An already emotional morning was bound to get even more so for Maureen "Mo" Smith, a member of the Fairfax Harley Owners Group who was asked to escort Bob De Haven Sr., father of Bob De Haven, founder of the Patriot Harley dealership.
"THIS IS MY seventh year, but I rode from Manassas before Patriot had their ride," she said. The Oakton resident and her passenger were second in line to leave the dealership and begin the police-escorted trip to the Pentagon.
"It’s such a solemn event. This is how I can say thank you to the veterans who fought for us," she said, eyes shimmering with tears of gratitude.
People who live along the route line up to wave and watch the bikers wind through communities, she said, adding to the emotional nature of the event.
"The closer you get to the Pentagon the more I get tears in my eyes," she said. "It’s awe-inspiring. There are older men and women who are out there, holding their American flags and thanking me for riding. I should be thanking them."
Having grown up in an Army family, Smith said she rides in her father's honor. "There’s a feeling you get thinking about the things these soldiers have done for us. It’s just amazing," she said.
The Ride of the Patriots is a social event that gives Mike Valentine of Fairfax a chance to reunite and ride with friends.
I served two-and-a-half years in the Army Reserve after Sept. 11," Valentine said. His reasons for riding are simple: "I’m a vet; I’m a biker."
Joined by friends from Florida and North Carolina, he said participating in the ride is "something a little distinctive we can do together. It’s more than just the pools opening, like the mayor said. This ride is important for a lot of people, especially when we’re in a conflict overseas like we are now. Everyone who supports their effort wants to feel like they’re doing something special for the men and women who are fighting."
For Bruce Hackert, one of Valentine’s friends from North Carolina, riding to the Pentagon was like coming home.
"I was a lieutenant in the Arlington police," Hackert said. "Plus, I’m a vet. I came up to go to the Wall … I know some names up there."
Riding to remember his fallen friends has become an annual event for him. "I was here for the dedication when the ride first left, and I think I’ve been here just about every year since," he said.
As the motorcycles thundered out of Fairfax and onto Route 66, parade-lovers of all ages lined the roads, waving hands and flags or showing a simple peace sign.
On every overpass, people were waiting, watching the line of motorcycles that stretched for miles in both directions.
Nearing the Arlington County border, the true meaning of the day was summed up in a simple, single gesture: a white-haired man stood next to a Prisoner of War/ Missing in Action flag, hand raised in a solemn salute.