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Bikers drive in record cash for veterans

June 02, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - They just kept rolling in and rolling in.

More than 2,000 motorcycle riders -- marking the biggest turnout in the 18th annual Operation God Bless America motorcycle ride from Greencastle, Pa., to Martinsburg -- streamed through the gates of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Martinsburg Sunday afternoon to raise money for veterans.

"I've never seen so many motorcycles," said Dottie Hough, who oversees volunteer services at the veterans hospital.

There were so many motorcycles that it took about an hour for the riders to get onto the grounds of the hospital along W.Va. 9 west of Martinsburg.

Spotless Harley-Davidson, Honda, Yamaha, Vulcan and Norton motorcycles, with their chrome shining in the sun, passed crowds of waving spectators along the entrance to the hospital. The riders then passed around the back of the building to make sure all veterans remaining inside the hospital could see the motorcade.

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A woman riding on one motorcycle had a fake punk hairdo glued to her helmet and another rider's bike emitted a police siren sound. It was a parade of motorcyclists at its finest, with chrome helmets, lots of leather and growling engines, enhanced when spectators periodically twisted their wrists, imitating the gunning of an engine.

And like the turnout of riders, a record amount of money raised: $55,000.

Riders made a $10 donation to participate and other funds were raised through shirt sales and auctioning of items, organizers said. The amount raised was significantly boosted when a Chambersburg, Pa., couple donated $25,000, organizers said. The couple also gave $25,000 last year, organizers said.

The money is given to veterans to supply them with everything from toothpaste and shaving cream to personal computers, said Barry Stevens, one of the organizers. In the early days of the ride, the event was designed to supply veterans with items not provided by the hospital, which provides care to more than 35,000 veterans.

The event has grown tremendously over the years.

The first ride raised about $1,200 and in the mid-1990s, it attracted as many as 500 riders and raised several thousand dollars, according to organizers and Herald-Mail archives.

Stevens said 2,108 people registered to ride in Sunday's event and other riders joined along the route, probably pushing the number to about 2,200 riders.

The motorcyclists were scheduled to depart about noon from a truck stop in the Greencastle area for their roughly 50-mile trip on roads including Interstate 81.

At the hospital, the bikers picked up lunch and ate on the grounds, some mingling with veterans.

Rider Wayne Hyslop of Winchester, Va., was in his third ride and was one of 22 participants representing the U.S. Military Vets Motorcycle Club.

When asked how he felt about veterans at the hospital, Hyslop said he was worried about U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and likened the situations to the Vietnam War.

"It's like we're making the same stupid mistakes again," said Hyslop, a 20-year Navy veteran who served two tours in Vietnam.

Frank Buck, 63, a Marine Corps veteran from Martinsburg, said he enjoyed the visit from the motorcyclists, especially since many are veterans.

"It's kind of heartwarming. Their generosity is outstanding," said Buck, who was in a wheelchair near a pavilion where a ceremony was held. Buck said he has arthritis and is at the hospital for rehabilitation to regain his ability to walk.

Buck also was concerned about the country's current military conflicts and said they are "the same dish, just cooked a different way. It seems like we don't learn."

Buck was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War and recalled the tough memories of losing friends.

"The whole episode was a mess," Buck said.

Veteran Francis "Fran" Raplee sat at the back of the pavilion, ready for the ceremony.

"I enjoy stuff like this," said Raplee, who was in the Army from 1968 to 1970.

Next to Raplee, Joe Capozzi talked in detail about his home near Greensburg, Pa. Capozzi was in the Air Force from 1954 to 1975.

"I kid him because he's Army," Capozzi said, looking at Raplee.

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