I first met Dave when he came to New Zealand 2006, supporting a Vietnam Veterans fundraising ride. He is remarkable for many things, a veteran of a number of conflicts suffering the loss of one leg below the knee and the other above. With two prostheses he learned to ride a bike again. He said it was helpful when riding across Russia in the winter, he didn’t get cold feet.

When Dave organised a fundraiser ride in 2009 from Boston to Los Angeles for US veterans, John Coleman (JC), also a NZ Vietnam vet, and I decided to return the favour.

I hired a Harley Davidson in Boston. It had to be a Harley; this lifetime Triumph rider took some adjusting, but at the handing back in Los Angles there was some sentiment. It had carried me across a continent hassle free.

On from Boston it was the Big Apple. The Brooklyn Queens Expressway into New York must be in the top ten of world’s worst roads, jammed with cars, trucks and taxis, my bike hit one of many potholes, sending the GPS into a spin. When it had recalculated I had missed the crucial turn and was heading into the Bronx with the towers of Manhattan shrinking in the rear-view mirror.

Breaking all the rules, it was a U-turn and simply point the bike at the towers and ride ignoring honks and gestures. Finding a park for the bike in the concrete and glass towers was next to impossible. Travellers … take a train, car anything to NY, but not a motorbike. The ride out of NY was exciting. The GPS took me a most unexpected route and to this day I have no idea where I went, swapping freeways, parkways and the like. But trust in the machine saw me, tanks of fuel, gallons of cold drink and four and half hours of riding later, deposited outside the designated hotel in DC. Remarkable.

I headed to the bar expecting to see exservice men bikers, settling the thirst with a beer. After two lonely beers I left. Dave explained. The guys were in two groups. Those who had tried alcohol to solve their issues, survived that, and didn’t drink. The others were on serious medication and couldn’t. It was to be a remarkably dry 2,900 mile (4,600 km) ride.

Military precision

The ride started with a ceremony at the ‘Wall’ – the Vietnam War Memorial – and headed across the States on a northerly route through Kansas, Denver, Utah and down into Los Angles. We were supported by the fire fighters motorcycle club, Wind and Fire, local police escorts and veteran’s organisations. One police escort took us into town at such a fast clip I commented, “That’s the fastest I had ever come into town where the flashing lights weren’t behind me!” I got looks for that.

Things were organised, the NCO’s saw to that; and I have never ridden with so many polished boots. Every ride had a briefing at 6:45 a.m. It was ‘stands up’ at seven exactly and off. The ride had a set order, two by two everywhere, tight formation and no kiwi style single line. Behind the Road Captain and Dave up front were riders designated to ride ahead where necessary to hold traffic up for the ride. They exuded authority, not to be messed with and halted minis to Mack trucks. They also marked the route changes and planned fuel and food stops.

There was only one foul-up when a road guard was caught short and, while relieving himself, the ride passed missing the turn. 200-plus bikes snaked and turned in utter confusion around the short narrow streets of the town. Eventually we got sorted. That night the review panel sacked him and he was despatched to the back of the ride.

We rode up to 400 miles a day, at a steady 75 mph. Riding two abreast meant that passing rigs would slide past about a foot (10cm) from your handle bars. You got used to it as the truckers ran straight and true. I thought I could hear the drivers say, “Don’t worry, I got you buddy”. In some states the safety rules are lax. Seeing bikers fly past in jandles, shorts, t-shirt and no helmet made me feel overdressed in my leathers and full face.

Kansas is flat, flat. I remarked to a local that I had ridden six hours at 75 mph and never saw a bridge. He replied, “Well sir, the route you are taking I guess it will be another four hours before you do.” Ten hours riding and no bridges, this wasn’t En Zed.

We stopped at some unusual places. One was Kearney Missouri, the home of Jessie James. The equivalent of the RSA was in the old railway station. I was told this was the site of the station when Jessie was alive. My bike boots had to walk the platform. And you knew you were in the US of A when a midwest motel guest information listed more local gun shops than churches. Dave was a torrent of advice and humour – in the desert areas we were told to cover up … “You don’t see an Arab in a t-shirt.”

Money for veterans

Each day included fundraisers. These were often lead by a former US Marine drill sergeant aptly called Monsoon. Wider than tall, his gravelly cigar smoking voice got people to bid for what they didn’t want and be pleased to overbid themselves. Monsoon was often assisted by John Baca, who won a Congressional Medal of Honor for putting his helmet and then himself over a grenade saving eight lives. You wouldn’t wish to see his stomach twice. A hero.

John volunteered around military hospitals offering support to the wounded and their families. He was supported by a team of dedicated volunteers. When he thought help was required he asked his supporters for the necessary money. They simply gave it to him; that was their support for a man holding the Medal of Honor. When I asked if there were lists of names and receipts they were perplexed. John’s word was it; there was no need for an accounting system. The gold standard in commitment and trust. I was deeply impressed.

Everywhere we went the Stars and Stripes fluttered. All were proud of their service men and women. They stood up for them and they got priority. America is deeply patriotic. The wellspring of support for veterans was deep and strong; I had experienced nothing like it.

Part of the reason for the ride was to get a better understanding of veteran’s issues. As a former Minister of Veterans’ Affairs I wanted this experience to help inform what we were doing here. People were open and frank with their personal experiences. The US has more experience of veterans and the issues, it was enlightening and informed my work on the updating of our veterans legislation. I made many good friends as well.

The 200 riders who made the coast-to coast were swelled to over 3,000 in LA. So many bikes the police required the ride to be broken up into pulses or we would have jammed LA’s freeways.

As I rode solo again to the bike drop off by LAX, still at a steady 75 mph, I was a slow vehicle in the six lane 65 mph zone and was overtaken by a drop-top VW in which the woman driver was using the rear view mirror to fix her make-up. Ah, the land of the free!

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