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Collected written works  |  Gary Marx

A Long Story

The Run for the Wall

The column of motorcycles winds through the countryside, hugging the hills of West Virginia, roaring through the dirt-poor coal-dusted town on its way east.

Soon it will hit the interstate, cut north through the Shenandoah Valley and barrel on through Virginia, then Maryland, and on toward Washington, D.C. The nation's capital. The city of monuments.

It's a cold Friday morning. Leathers and rain gear cloak the tattoos and the colors -the patch-stitched and embroidered denim jackets -and the bikers' exposed faces have turned red from the wind. But the Harleys have warmed, the Gold Wings and ``rice burners'' are purring, and the mist hanging above the highway seems to part and lift at the sound of the approaching bikes.

There's a sense of expectation among the riders, a sensation that heightens as they draw nearer their destination.

This is the final leg of the run, a run that began for most of them in California, two weeks and 3,500 miles ago.

It is no ordinary motorcycle run. Although some of them look the part, these are not the Hells Angels. Nor is this a milk run to a country fair rally. This is serious business. Most of the 70 or so bikers on this portion of the run are Vietnam veterans, and they are making a ``Run For The Wall.''

The Run For The Wall 1994, the sixth annual, began at the Pacific Coast on May 18 and ended during Memorial Day weekend in D.C., in the shadow of the Capitol. In Washington, these biker veterans linked with riders from other parts of the country for a show of strength and solidarity on Sunday, May 29, in a parade appropriately dubbed Rolling Thunder.

About 100,000 motorcycles took part in the parade, riding from the Pentagon across the Potomac to the heart of the nation's capital, culminating at the mall between the Washington and Lincoln monuments, at the Vietnam War Memorial, the Wall.

The city shut down as the parade of cycles took two hours to stream across the bridge. People lined Constitution and Independence avenues and cheered while engines rumbled and flags flapped behind the bikes -American flags, state flags, a rebel battleflag or two and the ubiquitous black-and-white banner of the POW-MIA.

The demonstration was intended to focus the nation's attention on the POW-MIA issue, the last open sore from the war in Southeast Asia.

There were other issues raised, in speeches and conversations along the way - from the diagnosis and treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other medical problems to the lack of comprehensive benefits for veterans. But the overriding political message, the cause celebre, was the push to ``bring 'em back now.''

There are more than 2,000 individuals still listed as missing in action in Vietnam, and nothing short of a full accounting of each will be acceptable to these vets. ``Bring them home or send us back,'' they say. The credo is this: ``We do not leave anyone - our wounded, our comrades taken prisoner, the bodies of our dead - behind on the battlefield.''

The demonstration - which gained scant national coverage, overshadowed by the country's fascination with the 50th anniversary of D-Day - took on added importance for the participants this year because of President Clinton's action in February, lifting the trade embargo against the Vietnamese government.

To veterans groups, the embargo represented the biggest bargaining chip the United States had to gain Vietnamese cooperation in accounting for our MIAs. Lifting the embargo was seen as yet another slap in the face of the Vietnam veteran.

There is a lot of bitterness among the veterans toward the government, which for years, they contend, has given nothing more than lip service to their concerns. Few of the veterans stayed in D.C. through Monday to hear the annual Memorial Day speech by Clinton, whom they often referred to as President Billary.

And privately, some of the veterans wondered if 100,000 motorcycles in downtown Washington would even get the president's attention.

Sen. Ben Campbell of Colorado, a biker himself and participant in Rolling Thunder, has championed many veterans' causes in Congress. He believes it was a mistake to lift the embargo.

``The fact of the matter is that we've accounted for less than a 10th of the missing, and we've paid for everything we've got,'' he said in an informal interview Saturday, the day before Rolling Thunder. ``We paid them.

``The remains of every American found over there was found because Americans paid for the Vietnam guys to go out into the jungle and do all that digging. They didn't do a damn thing for us for nothing.

``It seems to me,'' Campbell said, ``that if there's no incentive to help, then why should they?''

Privately, some of the veterans who ran to the Wall from California will acknowledge the POW-MIA issue might be a dying cause now.

One guy said he firmly believed that before the embargo was lifted there were live prisoners still being held in Vietnam. ``But once they lifted it, they were taken out back and shot to death because they weren't needed anymore,'' he said.

Vince Trujillo, a Nam vet from California and participant in six runs to the Wall, suggested that the lifting of the trade embargo is not simply the act of a rogue president. The Senate voted 62-38 in favor of lifting it, giving the president the non-binding vote of confidence that he was waiting for. And the decisions by those 62 senators and President Clinton might be reflective of the changing mood of the country.

``For years we were a nuisance to the government,'' he said. ``The government just wanted us to go away. Now it seems the movement is dying down. And that's a shame, because what it says is that they've won, the government's won.''

A lot of wind has been stripped from the sails of the veterans' political agenda. And some of them only half-heartedly carry the POW-MIA banner.

``I don't know if there's anyone left over there,'' one veteran admitted privately. ``I'm almost ready to let that one go, but I'll never let go of the hope.''

So with a political agenda dead or dying, why do these men and women make the run? Not all of these people are jobless or disabled and easily able of taking off across the country for three weeks. Some of these people have jobs; they are executives, business owners, police officers, lawyers. They represent all races and religions. They come from all walks of life.

The answer to that question is as varied as the individuals who made the trip. The run is as much a personal odyssey for them as it is a political statement.


The Harleys rumble to a stop near the memorial. The cycles are parked, engines shut down. It's Friday afternoon on the eve of a long weekend and the office workers have already left the city. Thousands of veterans and bikers are about to take over, and soon even the normal tourists will leave.

A few straggling sightseers snap shots of the Wall and talk amongst themselves about visiting the Lincoln Memorial next. And then the botanical gardens. And then...

The Wall is nothing more than a trophy to them, a backdrop for family photos, proof of the vacation to Washington. Smile everyone, say cheese.

Gradually the veterans file toward the Wall, walking in groups of two and three, some of them pausing at the more traditional monument to the veterans of Vietnam, the bronze sculpture of three soldiers casting vacant stares down the hill toward the Wall. Some of the bikers head toward the monument to the women veterans of the war, a recent addition to the grounds around the Wall.

At the Wall, these guys stand in small clusters, staring at specific panels of the black granite structure that stands like a gash across the green mall. The names of loved ones and buddies long gone are listed there, 60,000 of them.

Personal messages, little remembrances, tiny gifts are left at the base of the Wall. These are private matters, left open for the world to see.

Propped against the granite, beneath the name of someone's son, a photo album lay open like a fresh wound. A card attached simply read, ``A life taken too soon.'' The visitor doesn't look too closely. It seems much too personal.

Although the war has been over for almost two decades, some of these people - men and women still hurt. They carry with them, and probably always will, the memories of buddies cut down in the jungles or dismembered by booby traps and mines. They recall the horror of battling an unseen enemy in a strange, hot inhospitable land.

Some still feel the frustration of fighting an unwinnable war and remember the faces of comrades who died in their arms.

Some still suffer from what is known clinically as post-traumatic stress disorder.

And they still feel bitter, some of them, that they returned to the United States not as heroes, but as participants in the unholy endeavor, the only war this country has ever lost. There were no parades for baby killers and losers.

Linda Anderson, who with her husband, John Wild Turkey to his friends - captained the Run For The Wall this year, said the cross-country trip and the Wall visitation are part of the healing process.

``It's been 20 years,'' she said of her husband's experience in Nam. ``And he's just now being able to talk about it. This has helped open him up. It's good to let it out. And it's helped me understand, too.''

So many vets came back from the war and felt disenfranchized from society, she said. But taking part in something like this helps each of them realize that they are not alone.

``We started out as strangers,'' she said, referring to her and John's first Run For The Wall three years ago. ``But by the time we got to the Wall, we were one big family.''

The people on this run every year forge bonds between each other. On the highway and at the Wall, they lean on each other and share each other's pains. And all along the road -all the way from California to the dirt-poor coal-dusted towns of West Virginia - local people opened their doors, provided camping areas and food. Moose lodges, VFWs and American Legion halls put on feasts, provided programs and offered emotional support. This happened at each stop, and points in between, including a break at a truck stop in Mount Vernon, Ill.

But when they finally arrived at the Wall, each of these people had to deal with his own bag.

There were guys like J.R., out of the Southwest, and Dan, a lawyer out of Chicago, both of them making their first trip to the Wall. They knew no one on this run before joining it - J.R. somewhere in Colorado and Dan at Mount Vernon - but they weren't alone at the Wall. Their new comrades wouldn't let them be without a hug or a supporting shoulder if they needed it.

There were guys like Billy D, the loner and self-proclaimed tree-liner, one of those guys who stands among the grove of trees overlooking the memorial, never quite mustering whatever it takes to approach that cold granite, to touch it, to deal with the pain that still today haunts them.

And there are the guys who are so burned psychologically they'll never come back from wherever the Nam experience took them. These are the guys Trujillo calls ``the real casualties of the war.''

There are all sorts of people, all sorts of motivations, all sorts of bags dealt with here, and for some of these guys, the purpose of their run had been fulfilled at the Wall that Friday. The Rolling Thunder parade and demonstration Sunday was a bit anticlimactic.

Some of them turned around and headed home Saturday, not even bothering with the parade. Others stuck around until Sunday. Some stayed through Monday. Eventually, however, they all drifted away, peeling off, heading home. Alone again now, for the most part.

Perhaps they felt better, it's difficult to say. Perhaps they felt better simply by joining voices with 100,000 others and revving their Harleys at the steps of the Capitol. Maybe they were able to shed a little of the weight they still silently carry around with them from the war. Maybe they were able to leave more than a gift or a flag or a memento at the Wall; maybe they were able to ease their own burdens. Maybe the Wall helped them heal a little.

At the very least, they came away, most of them probably, with a stronger sense of family and the knowledge that they are not, indeed, alone.


Somewhere Over the 

     Rainbow: The People

     Who Live Outside


The Run for the Wall:

     Motorcycles and


Return of a Radical:

     Oscar Winner Barb

     Trent Returns to Old

     Stomping Grounds

Along the Jack’s Fork:

     Canoeing in the Ozarks