BANGOR, Maine – On Sept. 11, 2001, 20-year-old Wally Hall was fresh out of boot camp and enrolled in special training at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
"I was eating breakfast and watching the news when I saw the towers burning," the Plattsburgh, N.Y., resident said, recalling the hijacked planes that flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan that clear morning. "It was a shock. It was terrifying. The whole base was shut down, and all the infantry units were preparing for the worst. We thought the whole nation might be under attack."
Hall, who was among the first wave of U.S. Marines to enter Iraq, was at the Cole Land Transportation Museum in Bangor on Saturday with about 130 fellow members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association to commemorate the 9-11 attacks and the men and women who died that day. The group also laid a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the museum, which contains the names of about 350 Maine service members who gave their lives in that war.
Hall, now 29 years old and a full-time student, is one of the younger members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, a national organization with about 5,000 members and chapters in 48 states, including Hawaii and Alaska. The majority of members are veterans of the Vietnam War, but there is a growing representation from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, according to Maine Chapter Commander Bill Frost of Berwick.
"This is the greatest bunch of guys. The camaraderie is so strong," he said. "We all have one goal in mind: to help the combat veterans who are coming back now."
In Maine, that help takes the form of fundraising for the Beals House at the Togus VA Medical Center. Beals House provides temporary housing, meals and other support for the families of veterans who are in treatment at the VA hospital. Chapters in other states raise money for similar programs, while the national organization supports the Fisher House Foundation, which operates facilities on the grounds of every major VA and military hospital in the country.
"War is war," Frost said. "We all suffer from a lot of the same injuries." Post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, limb loss and other injuries are common among the members of the organization, he said.
Although black leather and Harley-Davidson insignias abounded at the gathering, the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association is not a "motorcycle club" and does not want to be confused with gang-type organizations, Frost said.
"We are a group of combat vets with a love for riding motorcycles and a passion for helping other veterans," he said. To qualify for membership, veterans must have served in direct combat and have a big motorcycle -— 500 cc or larger.
Joe Laliberte of Lewiston, chaplain for the Maine chapter, said he suffers from PTSD as well as spinal injuries from his combat service in Vietnam. But when he fires up his Harley, he said, "it takes it all away. It's an extraordinary release. My mind becomes occupied with the sights and sounds and fragrances of the earth, and all the other stuff just goes away."
The regional meeting of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association drew members to Bangor from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and throughout New England. In addition to visiting the Cole Land Transportation Museum, the group toured Fort Knox State Park and enjoyed a ride to Bar Harbor and back. A Saturday evening barbecue for the members was hosted by Central Maine Harley-Davidson in Hermon.
"Holidays, birthdays & anniversaries have been celebrated with tears and smiles with people who truly understand what the other person is experiencing."
- Kamryn Jaroszewski