Sometimes America needs bikers to remind us what it’s like to feel free. Today, as flags are raised and fireworks glare red, as barbecues, picnics, parades, and ball-games begin and families gather, take a quiet moment to reflect on the sacrifice, the noble principles and unyielding fortitude it takes every hour of every day to protect our way of life.
And if somehow we need reminding, just ask our soldiers in arms this Fourth of July. Just a couple of months past the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, we are again at war in a remote corner of the world. What power resides within us to take a stand for something greater than ourselves, something that has us re-declaring our independence every year?
“Believe me, dear Sir: there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.”
—Thomas Jefferson, November 29, 1775
That kind of courage and conviction is uncommon. For U.S. soldiers, it’s built in. But what happens on their day off? At U.S. bases across the nation there’s a pent-up passion for biking after a tour of duty. Returning servicemen and women are biting at the bit, eager to buy the baddest bike they can find, fuel it, and fire off into the homeland. Some may say it’s a way of getting that war-zone adrenalin fix; others think it’s just brash Americans having fun, biker patriots deservedly enjoying the freedom they fight for.
Army Reserve Master Sergeant Mike Therrien is a 26-year-veteran based at Fort Dix. He has been mobilized since 2006, serving as an Observer Controller/Trainer. “I teach combat survivability (weapons, tactics, and enemy fighting trends),” he said. “I am also the master trainer for counter IED (Improvised Explosive Devices). I teach all the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) prior to their deployment, and in-theater.”
Master Sergeant Mike Therrien was originally trained to ride motorcycles while on active duty in the 101st ABN Air-Assault Division.
Therrien was also trained to ride motorcycles while on active duty with the 101st ABN Air-Assault Division. His first bike was a Kawasaki KL250, riding as an infantry scout. On U.S. streets, Therrien rode a Honda V45 Magna, then took a 20-year break from biking due to marriage. He has since returned to the fold with a 2006 custom painted Victory Vegas.
“High fuel prices and cash accumulated during deployments are driving up the popularity of motorcycles in the Armed Forces,” commented the Master Sergeant. Young fighters, buckets of testosterone, powerful motorcycles and stateside leave can add up to a soldiers gone wild video, but Therrien said there are fail safes.
There is, of course, the “U.S. Army Safety Guide.” More rules than guidelines really, it contains no less than 3,446 words addressing road rules, proper gear, traffic laws, military ways and a tale of the great and grievous woe that will befall any soldier breaking the damn rules, on or off duty.
“It’s really not a big deal to wear all the protective equipment,” said Therrien. “We follow the state law where we ride unless it’s not within the Army standards, i.e., no helmet law. Not an option for us. You just got to suffer with helmet hair. Hell, most of us have none anyways.
“We do have thrill seekers and adrenalin junkies,” he added, “but [this behavior] is highly discouraged and violators are punished, if caught. The military can revoke your riding privilege, so it pays to do right. We ride anything from crotch-rockets to cruisers to dirt bikes. For many, it’s their Zen time. A bad day at work can be forgotten in a matter of seconds when you put the can on the seat. All that matters is the ride.” Funny how that works for civilians, too.
Therrien explained military motorcycling isn’t necessarily limited to the U.S. “You can ride in some places overseas; Germany is one. In the Iraq theater some love to ride so much they piecemeal a bike together and run around the motor-pool. It is not allowed, of course, and is short-lived but some guys can’t help themselves; they just have to ride.”
While certain rules are set in stone, some of the rules regarding riding a motorcycle around the base are optional, like wearing a reflective vest as pictured above.
The Master Sergeant explained moto rules can vary from base to base, service to service, and even between units. Some bases require a vest instead of the reflective belt. Sportbike riders must complete additional safety classes, and everybody must have a civilian license with motorcycle endorsement, and have completed the motorcycle safety course. “The military even pays for it,” said Therrien. Finally, our tax dollars at work.
Motorcycling in the military does come with some major coolness issues. “It looks a little weird to see a soldier all decked out in black leather wearing a vest with a bright yellow or orange reflective belt, but safety is the number-one concern of the Armed Forces. It just doesn’t sit well to see your guys survive a combat tour overseas only to get killed in a motorcycle wreck back home. The loss of any member of the force is a loss felt far and wide through the ranks.
“Many of us go to rallies and different runs. We wear our pins, patches, and shirts like so many vets. We get some bean busting about the protective gear, but when the reason why is told the whole attitude changes. We are thanked for our service, and welcomed with open arms and hearts. The vets of past wars have made it a point to make sure we are supported. The Biker vets are the best. We, the current force, thank them all.”
Martin Twofeather is a Native American from the Bear Clan of the Blackfoot tribe. The Airborne lieutenant did two tours in Vietnam and is about as old school as you can get. “I got into biking at age 13, long before I went into the service because of my older brother and his love for his Indian motorcycle. Biking gave me something good to think about.”
Twofeather still visits the grave of a fallen comrade. “His name was William Lloyd Lam from Hampton, VA. He died at 21 in my arms. He landed on March 14, 1968, died March 15, 1968. I held the kid for about 2 ½ hours as he told me his story. He had more holes in him than a piece of Swiss cheese—mortar fragments. Did you ever wonder how long it would take to tell your life story?”
Another Vietnam vet who would speak only on condition of anonymity said he was a door gunner on a Huey. “On 10/10/65, we were shot down. I woke up deaf and blind; only two of us survived. In the hospital all we talked about was wearing our uniforms home to get girls, and Harley-Davidsons. But we weren’t allowed to wear our uniforms home because people hated us. My mom and dad bought me a Harley. I’ve been riding ever since. Five gallons of gas is the only thing that keeps me sane. The wind does something to my soul—I feel free and alive!”
Brian Kestner is a 28-year-old Staff Sergeant in the Marine Corps currently assigned to 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion. He has done three tours to Iraq and two to Afghanistan since he enlisted at 18.
“I just got back from my latest tour in Afghanistan about a month ago. I’ve been riding for about two years now, and own a 2008 Suzuki DR650,” he said. I’m a member of the San Diego Adventure Riders and ride mainly with my father-in-law (who got me into it) and my brother-in-law (also a Marine). I mainly ride in southern California and enjoy technical trail riding more than anything else. The point for me is to get out and blow off some steam and have fun.”
The military has restrictions on what you can/must wear when riding. There was a period of several years where we lost more guys on motorcycles than we did in combat, so the knee-jerk reaction was to institute ill-advised and ineffective restrictions, including wearing a reflective vest and other safety gear at all times. They also required us to go through a motorcycle safety course periodically to build skills and retain them.
Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Brian Kestner believes there is a subconscious desire for soldiers to recreate a ‘war-zone adrenaline fix’ through motorcycles.
Many military riders viewed the requirements as stupid and an ineffective fix by the military, and kept their ownership of a bike secret and only rode off-base and off duty. Many restrictions have been relaxed over the past year or two after studies showed the safety gear did nothing to reduce accidents, and that training and practice is paramount. Now the regulation is to wear long sleeves, over-the-ankle boots, gloves and long pants. Jackets and reflective vests are now encouraged, but not required.
Kestner said many guys coming off deployment get motorcycles. “They have a big chunk of change in their accounts and want to get out and blow off some steam. The need to “break loose” or get that “war-zone adrenaline fix” is real, I think, but subconscious. The only thought going through your head is that your buddies have bikes, it looks fun, they’re relatively inexpensive, so where’s the down side?”
“Being an organization generally made up of alpha males, the common trend is not to get anything with less than 750cc, regardless of how much experience you have. The safety courses we must complete are extremely beneficial. They’re also put on in a fun and competitive way so that we knuckle-dragging adrenaline junkies don’t get bored!”