Thousands of road and war-hardened motorcyclists turned out Sunday in their black leather vests and best Christmas attire to participate in the 14th annual Vets’ Christmas Charity Ride to honor veterans at the Dorn VA Medical Center.
Riders congregated at the Carolina Honda Powerhouse on the 900 block of Buckner Road at 10 a.m. to drop off presents and monetary donations that would be given to veterans who may otherwise not have a Christmas.
“Many veterans there have no family at all, or they are a long distance away from here,” said Jim Wertman, owner of Carolina Honda. “We are taking Christmas over there to make sure these veterans have a Christmas they deserve.”
Many of the gift-giving riders were also veterans serving in World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan who wanted to show support for those who also put their lives in harm’s way.
Bobby Farmer, the national chaplain for the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, who also served as a combat engineer in Vietnam, said the ride was his chance to show his gratitude for those that served before him, with him and after him.
“We are all about veterans helping veterans and the reason we do that is because of brotherhood,” Farmer said. “We never want to forget anyone who served, because they served honorably and we need to serve them faithfully.”
It seemed that Santa traded his sleigh and reindeer in for a motorcycle to participate in the ride. Actually, quite a few Santas did.
Roger Kuykendall, dressed in a full Santa suit, with a white beard and hair to match, said he has been participating in the annual charity ride for eight years. Although he didn’t serve, he said he has family members who are veterans.
“They have done more than their share for us so it is time for us to pay back a little bit,” Kukendall said. “I do it because I care about them.”
As a seemingly endless swarm of motorcyclists filled the parking lot of Carolina Honda, the gift trailer filled up with blankets, toiletries and clothing and other presents. Wertman said that 100 percent of the items and money donated for the charity drive would benefit veterans receiving treatment at the hospital as well as those who were homeless.
At 2 p.m., with a thunderous roar of motorcycle engines the riders were off, accompanied by police escorts to carve through the streets of Columbia with their holiday spirit in tow to Dorn.
Tammy Finney, the chief of voluntary service at Dorn, has been a part of the charity ride for three years. Every year is better than the last, she said.
“I have never experienced anything so awesome and wonderful,” Finney said. “It’s nothing I can really put into words. You have to be there to experience it.”
The nearly 5,000 riders who drove to Dorn heard speeches from Wertman, Finney and many others including Adjutant Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston and Dorn VA Director Tim McMurry. They were also joined on stage by Donnell Baker, the widow of Medal of Honor recipient John Baker for his service in Vietnam, and Robin Carpenter, the mother of recent Medal of Honor recipient Kyle Carpenter.
Donnell Baker said the memory of her husband flew over Fort Jackson recently in the form of an eagle.
Shortly after the speeches, a human chain was formed to help deliver the thousands of presents donated to the veterans’ hospital. Inside 10-year-old Karmen McSwain stacked presents against the wall after they could no longer fit underneath the tree.
McSwain said she donated 132 shoe boxes of toiletries as well as $360 from donations she raised through her foundation, Karmen’s Kind.
McSwain said when was 5, a family friend of hers was killed in the line of duty and so she decided to help those who risk their lives for her freedom.
“I told my momma that we needed to do something,” McSwain said. “Ever since then I have been helping soldiers. We have been putting toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, razors, notepads and tissues in shoe boxes for Christmas.”