Image courtesy of GlacierTim used under Creative Commons.
“Freedom is the life-blood of America. For many, the motorcycle is the embodiment of Freedom, giving the rider the ability to go where they want, when they want with few restrictions. Like an Eagle flying Free, the feeling is without compromise. Freedom is a precious gift to be cherished, honored, relished and respected. ”
That’s from the Mission Statement of the annual Salute to American Veterans Rally, and it perfectly embodies what every true biker knows in their heart and believes with every fiber of their being. We are born free, and we ride free, and if necessary, we’ll give our lives to stay free.
Even though bikers have a bad rep in many places, anybody who’s ever spent time around real bikers knows that they’re the most patriotic Americans around. Most bikers are proud to wear the flag, or patches honoring the military. Many of us have fought, and been injured in the line of duty. Many have served in other ways. Those of us who have remained behind have shown unwavering support for friends and family on active service and for returning veterans. Our slavish obedience to the law may sometimes be called into question, but our loyalty to our country – never!
Bikers and the Military
The association between bikers and the military goes back a long time. For many, their first experience of motorcycles was in the army, where they were trained as despatch riders. Bikes were a rugged form of transport, more versatile than trucks or cars, and faster than horses. By the start of World War Two, Harley-Davidson were producing thousands of specialist military bikes, including the famous WLA and the less well known shaft-driven XA, based on the German BMW R75. Their main rival, Indian, developed the 741, and the variant 841, specifically for desert warfare.
After the war, many young men returned home from Europe and Asia, eager for excitement and adventure. Motorcycles were cheap, and they offered unprecedented mobility and freedom. Lured by the thrill of the open road, the 40s and 50s saw thousands of former military personnel turning to bikes for cheap transport, for a hobby, and as a way of bonding with other vets. The motorcycle clubs gave them the camaraderie they learned on the battlefields of North Africa, the Pacific, Germany, and Korea, and later in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and many more places throughout the world. Clubs were about brotherhood, about mutual respect, about standing together, and about loyalty – qualities which still exist in motorcycle clubs throughout the world today. As battle-hardened soldiers, bikers valued personal bravery, fearlessness, and the willingness to get physical to defend the people they cared about and the things that mattered to them.
Right from the early days, bikers drew from their military experience when forming clubs. Much of the most famous biker insignia is taken straight from the armed forces – the famous HAMC Death’s Head logo is based on designs used by the 85th Fighter Squadron and the 552nd Medium Bomber Squadron in World War Two, and the name Hell’s Angels was used by several different Air Force units before being adopted by the bikers (who spelled it Hells Angels, without the apostrophe). Most clubs have officers that reflect some sort of military heritage, such as the Sergeant-at-Arms. To show their patriotism, wearing military patches commemorating former service units was actively encouraged.
Veteran Groups and Charity
Image courtesy of futuresite used under Creative Commons.
As the number of clubs expanded, particularly in the wake of the Vietnam war, there began to be a distinction between genuine veterans and those who just loved motorcycles and the biker lifestyle. Returning vets were experiencing a lot of issues readjusting to civilian life, more so than in any previous wars. They didn’t have the support of the American population, and the government seemed unconcerned with the plight of veterans.
As a result, bikers felt they had nowhere to turn but to each other. More and more clubs grew up that restricted their membership to veterans and their families. Their mission was to look out for each other, to help each other in practical ways, and to help other vets going through tough times. When a member was killed or injured, they were there for the grieving families, to provide emotional support as well as day to day assistance. For bikers, loyalty is everything. Even when everyone else has abandoned someone who needs help, a biker will always be there, giving his last dollar and, if necessary, his last breath.
Image courtesy of The U.S. Army used under Creative Commons.
Bikers have been at the forefront of charity and fundraising for vets for many years. Far from being the villains, bikers do a lot for their community that often goes unrecognized. As the Hells Angels motto puts it, “When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets.”
Riding for Freedom
Image courtesy of dalechumbley used under Creative Commons.
With Memorial Day coming close, our thoughts are with those who died, those who came back, and those who are still serving. Many of us will be taking part in events to mark the day, or spending time in quiet personal reflection and remembrance. Many of us have lost loved ones, or have friends and family members overseas. Many of us have our own stories to tell, of the struggles we have faced in combat and the battles we have fought at home to adjust. For some, our bikes and the unwavering loyalty and support of our fellow bikers are the only things that have helped us through the most traumatic events imaginable.
When we saddle up, we represent a tradition that goes back to the day America was founded. When we ride, we are free of mindless TV commercials and inane radio. We are free to think as we please, to go where we please, and to escape the pressures of everyday life and of our past. Others will never know that freedom.
Let’s close with another piece from the Veterans Rally. “The gift of freedom comes with a very high price: It is paid for with the blood of hundreds of thousands of United States Veterans, and with the tears and anguish of their families. So precious is the gift of freedom that taking it for granted is unthinkable, outrageous, and nearly a sin. So we gather here, to honor, remember and respect those who pay the price for OUR FREEDOM, but also, to CELEBRATE that freedom. Celebrating our freedom: This is our mission.”
As bikers, we understand the importance of freedom, and we know the price that must be paid. When we ride, alone or with others, we celebrate our own freedom, and we pay honor to those who bought it for us with their service and with their lives. With the deepest pride, we stand for all those who value freedom as we do, and we stand for America.