In the shadow of the USS Kidd and the Veterans Memorial, about 100 bikers and veterans from around Louisiana revved their engines to escort the American flag from Baton Rouge to Lafayette.
Starting where Independence Day fireworks would light up the night sky hours later, the trip was part of the “Patriot Tour.” It’s become an annual tradition that carries the flag cross-country by motorcycle, raising money for wounded military veterans and their families.
Paul Aubert, regional commander of the Nation of Patriots, the national nonprofit that organizes the tour, said it was just a happy accident that the Baton Rouge stop landed on July 4 this year. The flag, the same one used for all six yearly tours, will make 100 stops in its tour of the continental United States between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The convoy gave Louisiana bikers, many of whom are veterans or have military members in their families, an opportunity to show their patriotism and appreciation for the families of veterans whose support often runs out when they return from combat.
Terri Whit, executive officer of Brotherhood of Valour Motorcycle Club, a club for emergency workers and first responders, said it’s important for people to realize that the veterans they recognize and honor for their service are vulnerable when they return.
“This is our way to honor them,” said Whit, who has one son serving in the Army and another who served in Iraq.
Whit said veterans face serious problems that require material as well as emotional support. Whether veterans are physically wounded or return from combat with emotional problems such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, many have trouble reintegrating with society.
She said assistance for veterans from the government does not always meet the level of need.
“They seem like they’re the forgotten piece of the puzzle,” Whit said. “Housing, health care, the way it impacts the family — there’s no real aid for that.”
Helping veterans through the Nation of Patriots reassures her, she said, because the organization is volunteer-run and puts its checks directly in the hands of local veterans.
Aubert said he works with Veterans Affairs to identify Baton Rouge-area veterans and families in need by a set of parameters that includes income, whether they were wounded on active duty and the number of their dependents. From there, Aubert said, his contact at the VA organizes meetings between Aubert and the veterans who are in need.
“When they come see us, they don’t know they’re getting a check. The VA just tells them, ‘Go see (The Nation of Patriots); they got some good programs,’ ” Aubert said. “That look on their face when they see — I have to stop myself from choking up. … It’s about seeing someone cares.”
Aubert, a Navy veteran of Vietnam, gave a fiery speech before a solemn crowd of veterans, bikers, military personnel and their family and friends, imploring them to never forget the sacrifices of soldiers killed or wounded in action.
He gave way to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, retired Maj. Gen. and former Louisiana House Speaker Hunt Downer and Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, who all thanked the veterans for their service. During his speech, Holden took time to recognize 10 Miss USA contestants who had volunteered to take donations and register riders.
Aubert again took the stage to honor one specific fallen soldier: Army Spc. John Dawson, 22, of Whitinsville, Massachusetts. Dawson, Aubert said, was the first American soldier killed in a combat zone in 2015 when he died in a shooting in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in April.
Aubert read the traditional poem “The Last Roll Call” before calling the names of four active service members sharing the stage with him. Then he called out Dawson’s name.
“Spc. John Dawson.”
“Spc. John Michael Dawson”
Only silence answered as members of the crowd sniffed and wiped their eyes, before a single trumpeter at the top of a guard tower played taps into the heavy July air.
The Baton Rouge Pipes and Drums led an honor guard with “Amazing Grace” before the bikers returned to their bikes and followed flag bearer Carl Landriault in escorting their red, white and blue charge, flapping in the wind, to the next stop on its journey.