GAIL WHITE Bike-riding veterans find new ways to serve
As a child, I remember my Uncle John Bintrim coming home for Christmas in his Navy uniform. He looked so snappy in his bright white outfit with shiny shoes and a smart cap.
Uncle John spent much of his tour of duty in the north Atlantic during the Vietnam War.
When he returned home, he bought a motorcycle. I remember standing on my grandparent's porch, watching him ride off in his red, white and blue, stars and stripes helmet.
Twenty-five years later, he has found a way to combine his love of country with his love of riding.
New activity: He traded his old Super Glide Harley Davidson motorcycle for a new one, the red, white and blue helmet for a black-striped bandana (with helmet) and has joined the U.S. Military Veterans Motorcycle Club of Pennsylvania, Chapter One, which rides out of New Castle.
"I'm proud that I served my country," says JAB, John's road name. "There is a camaraderie in this group, something that everyone has in common that they are proud of."
Zima, Aunt Patti to me, is proud to be a member of the Ladies Auxiliary faction of the club. "I'm proud that my husband is a veteran," she smiles, patting her black leather vest.
The vest distinguishes the group. "Each member must earn their vest," says Ed Donofrio, president of the club.
Skull, as Ed is known on the road, is a veteran of the Army and served in the Korean War.
"Whoever has this vest on their back has served their country and is proud to show it," he explains. "We wear it in honor of those who paid the ultimate price."
The patches: The vest is adorned with three patches. A large patch on the back displays a bald eagle over the American flag. Underneath, "Liberty" is written on a banner. Peeking from behind the banner is an olive branch for peace -- every veteran's dream.
On the front of the vest are two small patches. One is the flag and other reads, "In Memory of Those Who Gave Their Lives in the Service of USA."
Some of the members of the group have memory patches with the names of fallen soldiers. Others display insignia of their service experience, such as a patch reading, "In memory of over the 58,044 brothers who never returned from Vietnam."
Each vest tells a story of a personal journey. Some of the members of the club will talk about that journey. Others choose to hold their tale close to their vest.
"I have a lot of respect for other veterans," says Jim Medved, Crow, as is fellow riders call him. "I lost a lot of friends over there," Crow says of his fallen Vietnam Navy comrades.
Yet, the vests tell another story. It is a story of men and women who, having once served their country, are now striving to serve their community.
Benefit rides: The club often engages in riding benefits. They have raised money to fight cancer, diabetes and the abuse of children. They participate in a yearlong food drive for the Salvation Army. "People eat all year," Skull bemuses. "Not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas."
Everywhere they travel, every benefit they take part in, a pin is added to their vest.
In the past year, they have become involved in a project, however, that will garner no pin. They have "adopted" a forgotten cemetery on Savannah Road outside New Castle. Bob Mastropietro, Pete to his fellow bikers, found the Normal Glen Cemetery.
"It was so overgrown with weeds, you couldn't even see it," he remembers. Now, most of the grave sites have been found and cleared.
As they uncovered each stone, they discovered very few dating past 1900. They also found a dozen or more veterans of the Civil War.
"I enjoy helping out," says Crow, "in whatever little way that I can."
To all the members of the New Castle chapter of the U.S. Military Veterans Motorcycle Club -- and to all veterans -- we thank you for "helping out" during your tour of duty and we thank you for your dedication to keeping our country great.