They wore black biker garb instead of red Santa suits and rode Harleys instead of sleighs, but their mission Sunday to help South Carolina veterans Sunday was straight out of the Christmas playbook.
“This is all about veterans, and the biker community has come together – no matter what club they’re in or patch they wear,” said Michael “Grizzly” Aultman, 44, a U.S. Army and Navy veteran. He is vice president of the Mad Hatters Riding Club in Gaston in Lexington County.
Aultman was one of an estimated 500 S.C. bikers, both unaffiliated and from motorcycle clubs, who braved cold and rain to participate in the gifts-for-veterans ride, which ended at Dorn VA Medical Center in southeast Columbia shortly before 3 p.m. Many riders were veterans from as far back as the Vietnam War. They had served in Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ride – the 13th annual Veterans Christmas Charity Ride – generated thousands of gifts of clothing, toiletries and other items for vets at Dorn, as well as at area homeless shelters. What isn’t distributed this month will be given out during the year.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” said Dorn spokeswoman Tammy Finney.
Thousands of dollars were also raised, and if last year is any guide, some of that money will be used to buy iPads and other digital tablets for veterans’ use.
Dorn is a major South Carolina veterans’ center. Sunday, it had a little over 100 veterans in its hospital and long-term care complex. Each year, it handles more than 1 million out-patients and has some 2,000 staffers.
Riding on motorcycles at the front of Sunday’s biker legions were S.C. National Guard Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston and S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles executive director Kevin Schwebo, both of whom made brief speeches to the bikers once they reached Dorn.
Schwebo drew a roar of biker appreciation when he told the crowd that most people wouldn’t dare ride in such bad weather and “You ain’t one of them!”
“This is the time of year when we give thanks for the many gifts we have, and these veterans are a true gift to us – they give the gift of freedom for our great country, and we give back to them,” said Livingston in an interview.
Biker Tom Whitehead, 64, of Lexington, who was on a aircraft carrier in 1970 off the coast of Vietnam, rode into Dorn on his Harley Davidson “Fat Boy.” He said he was riding because “I’m too old to go over there and fight myself. This is my way of saying thank you to the veterans.”
Bikers were given police escorts as they rode through Columbia Sunday afternoon.
At 2 p.m., riders with police escorts parade through the city to the Dorn VA Medical Center in southeastern Columbia, where volunteers were helping unload trailers with gifts for veterans at the Veterans Administration center and at two homeless shelters.
Motorcycle dealer Jim Wertman of Carolina Honda and Gene Royer of All American Heating and Air started the event 13 years ago.
“This ride is really, really special to Gene and me, and it’s really special to the people who live in this community,” Wertman told the bikers in a speech as he thanked them for “coming out on a cold and rainy day.”
Wertman and Royer said their goal was to provide a holiday for all veterans, but particularly for those who don’t have family members to visit them.
Former U.S. Army Ranger and paratrooper and now biker Austin Coates, 55, of Richland County, said, “We have to support our own – this is veterans looking out for veterans.”
Coates looked around at the Dorn buildings and added, “We’re going to be here one of these days.”
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.