Memorial Day in the United States is a day set aside to remember and to honor members of the military who have died in America’s wars.
But sometimes, amid the patriotic displays and the barbecue parties that kick off the summer season, memories of the individuals who perished in war are lost. A motorcycle rally for veterans and their supporters showed another side of the story
The din of hundreds of gleaming Harley Davidson motorcycles and country music give this Long Island gathering of the U.S. Veterans Motorcycle Club a festive feel.
The rally is in preparation for the Rolling Thunder Memorial Day Parade, in which more than 1 million motorcycle riders will visit Washington, D.C.
That, says Vietnam veteran Brian Prochaska, has a serious mission.
“It is paying tribute to all our fallen comrades," said Prochaska. "Like my friend Walter, of course. I will never forget him. He is always in my thoughts, probably on a daily basis.”
Walter Bienkowski was killed in Vietnam in 1965.
“He was the toughest guy I ever knew in my life," said Prochaska. "And when we heard he died, it floored [shocked] us. As a result of that, 15 of us joined the Marine Corps in this pilgrimage - I guess to get even - and we all made it back alive, thank God. I guess it did not make a difference because he is still not here. He will never be here again."
Like Prochaska, Frank Tepedino wears a black leather motorcycle vest decorated with the patches signifying he is a Marine Corps veteran and a hard riding member of this club.
"… and I am here to remember my cousin Vinnie who was a Navy pilot shot down over in Vietnam," said Tepedino. "Vinnie was a nice guy, a nice family man, with a wife and three kids and unfortunately, he was just shot down and they never really found him."
The men stand at attention, hands over hearts, as bagpipers play Amazing Grace. The air crackles with emotion. Len Williams, who calls himself “Diehard” after a combat radio call sign, remembers his brother.
“Danny and I grew up in a foster home environment," said Williams. "Shortly after we graduated high school he decided to go into the service immediately. He went in the Green Berets, the Special Forces, and his Green Beret camp was overrun in the first encounter with enemy tanks from the north. He loved us. We loved him. He loved his country and obviously we still pray that he did not pay the ultimate sacrifice because we do not 100 percent know. We always miss him and continue to pray for his return.”
Michelle McNaughton became a “Gold Star Mother” when her son, Army Staff Sergeant James McNaughton, was killed in Iraq in 2005.
“He was humorous. He always had something funny to say," said McNaughton. "Some things you can not share that he said and other things you just go ‘ooh.’ He was good looking. He was tall. Dark hair. Big dark eyes. And he was a good friend. And his friends that he has had since elementary school, they will testify to the man that he was, the boy that he was, and the true friend that he was. There is not a day that goes by [that] I do not keep waiting for him to walk through that door. That is the hard part. Memorial Day takes on a whole different meaning since my son was killed.”
That sentiment is echoed by another Gold Star mother, Joanne Lyles. Her son Jordan Haerter was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2008. She says that for most Americans, Memorial Day simply means a three-day weekend, a barbecue, and perhaps a parade.
“And I just know as a young child I participated in Memorial Day parades, first as a Girl Scout and later as a Color Guard, and I do not think I knew the true meaning of Memorial Day, " said Lyles. ["The parade] ended up at a cemetery, I thought was all old people. I know too well now it is young lives that are lost at war for the good of our county and I do not think people know - because I did not know. And though I celebrate his friends and my nephews and nieces having children and stuff, I will never get to experience being a grandma. So it’s hard that way. It is a wound that does not heal."
Some thoughts of friends and loved ones as they remember the fallen this Memorial Day.