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Salute to the Military Motorcyclist

Sunday, July 4, 2010
There is something valiant about Americans. It may be their sense of duty, or family, or an unwavering patriotic belief in equality and liberty that has formed an indomitable spirit, a biker spirit, a willingness to embrace risk. Some of us defend these blood-fought rights with body and soul, and then when their duty is done, join in the damn pursuit of happiness at 100 mph.

Army Reserves  mobilized  Master Sergeant Mike Therrien with Victory
Army Reserve Master Sergeant Mike Therrien poses with his 2006 Victory motorcycle.
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 Sergent Mike Therrien
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.”

MSG Gordon Tomb
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.”

Martin Twofeather in his full Native American regalia
Martin Twofeather is a die-hard motorcycle enthusiast who did two tours in Vietnam.
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.

28-year-old Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Brian Kestner
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!”
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Dan -MSF coach, retired Navy  July 13, 2010 11:41 AM
I think the Armed Forces (total now, Navy & Marines initially) did right by requiring the MSF courses for all active duty riders. I even had to take the BRC just so I could get on base with a motorcycle after I retired and bought a bike. I took the Rider Coach Prep Course a couple of years after that, and have been teaching now for quite awhile in MN. Being properly attired (ATGATT, all the gear all the time) is large in my experience and my reading of injuries suffered by motorcyclists in even low speed crashes. I wear my helmet all the time, I have armored clothing for both hot and cold weather and will not ride without it.
My kid brother died on a bike that was too large for him to start on, didn't take the safety courses (1981 in CA, they were available), had erroneous information from friends ("don't touch the front brake, it'll kill you"), he didn't use the front brake when a van turned left in front of him, swerved, skidded into the right front of the old E250. He had all the gear, even a full face helmet, so his head wasn't mashed and we could visit and say our goodbyes while he was in a coma for three weeks and died. The doctors said there wasn't a major bone in his body that wasn't broken, brainstem injuries are what killed him though. He was going in the Coast Guard the very next month, had a wife and baby son. IF he'd taken a safety course, he might still be alive today.
tsr -theraputic rehabilitation  July 7, 2010 07:39 AM
...you don't see motorcycles parked outside a psychiatrist's office, now do you?
James Minta -CAPT, USN  July 5, 2010 12:33 PM
I've been in the Navy for 21 1/2 years, riding for 20. I had my only accident one month after buying my second bike, following a two year break from riding. I didn't take a safety course prior to getting that second bike, so my riding instincts weren't built up. When my buddy went down in front of me, I mashed the rear brake, high-siding right behind him. I should have applied the brakes slowly, firmly, but I lacked the training to brake properly. Why am I writing about this? Because I want everyone who rides to understand the complexities of "piloting" a motorcycle and the importance of proper, frequent training, as well as the use of proper safety equipment. I think riding a motorcycle is nearly as complex as flying a helicopter, and you all know there is a long training program to go through prior to getting a license. There is also frequent refresher training required. So please don't consider it foolish to take training classes every year. The only way to get proficient in a skill is through proper training and practice. And while the safety equipment will not reduce the chances of a crash, it will reduce the severity of the injuries, and could very likely safe your life! So, thanks to all my fellow service members for your service. Happy Birthday America and thanks Motorcycle USA for writing about us.
RENDELL -*****  July 4, 2010 07:17 PM
5 stars, excellent article.
wllrjstn -can't wait  July 4, 2010 03:55 PM
I'm in Iraq right now in the Army. I'll be heading back to the states in about three weeks. With all the pent up anger and frustration built up over the past year, I can't wait to get out on the road on my bike. I plan to ride across Texas and then from Houston to Milwaukee. What a release it will be to get out alone, just me and my bike and the elements. I know it sounds selfish, but I think I need to work out some things before I face my family. I'm counting on the bike ride to be therapeutic rehabilitation. I need it and can't wait.
Martin -motormadness  July 4, 2010 10:42 AM
Your the best as alway's!