250 veterans ride through Swannanoa in annual cross country Memorial Day motorcycle ride

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
The riders arrived on the afternoon of May 24 at the Asheville Harley-Davidson for sandwhiches and a rest.

The air thrummed with the sound of engines as more than 250 motorcycles rode into Swannanoa on May 24. 

The southern route of the annual Ride for the Wall passed through Asheville Harley-Davidson on its way to Washington, D.C., for Memorial Day. Each year, hundreds of riders join the movement to motorcycle across the country to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to promote healing among veterans and military family and friends. 

"As long as I can ride, I hope to ride with them," said RFTW founder James "Gunny" Gregory. "If I can't go all the way with them at least I can ride part way."

Founded in 1989, RFTW began when Gregory decided to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall for Memorial Day. Unfortunately, at the time, Gregory lived in San Diego. 

"A lot of us had issues, PTSD, on meds," said Gregory, a Vietnam veteran. "But we made it. We camped out; we didn't have money for hotels. Fortunately, a few organizations donated a little fuel, a little food and that continues today, 33 years later, out here doing it again."

Run for the Wall founder James "Gunny" Gregory humbly accepts applause during the afternoon meal in Swannanoa.

Now, at age 72, Gregory continues to ride each May. This year's run brought in riders from all over the country as well as the world, including Alaska, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. 

"Veterans are veterans," Gregory said. "We all did something similar." 

A ride for those who can't

Mike "Mellow Mike" Smith, a tall man dressed in the same leather RFTW vest as the other riders, organized the event in Swannanoa to gather and feed the large group as they arrived. 

Smith joined the run in 1999. That same year, he ended up talking to a man in Washington about the ride, only to realize it was Gregory. The two traced back their origins, realizing they had gone to grade school together. 

Mike "Mellow Mike" Smith (right) speaks with organizers at the event at the Asheville Harley-Davidson.

Over the years, Smith, a veteran who served on a minesweeper in Vietnam, has coordinated and rode in multiple runs. He's written extensively about his experiences, all the good times he's enjoyed and the difficult ones, remembering fallen comrades and seeing riders reminisce, bleary-eyed, of soldiers gone missing. 

"I watched Tex walk with Larry in his arms back into the deep polished black, smiling back at me, smiling and receding into the ocean of granite until all that was left was my reflection," Smith writes, remembering fallen soldiers as he faced the Veterans Wall.

Growing up the son of a World War II Navy veteran, Smith witnessed his father held in reverence when he was out in public. He said it took two years before his father was able to pay for his own meal at a restaurant. 

This year marks 33 years since the first Run for the Wall in 1989.

After three Navy tours in Vietnam, Smith returned to a very different reception than that of his father. Assigned on temporary duty with military police, it was Smith's job to supervise groups on military standby flights and arrest draftees who fled rather than go to Vietnam.

"I also had to deal with the public," Smith said. "I encountered people who would spit directly on us, on me. We were dealing with people that would get right in our faces and just call us every name they could possibly think of."

American flags dotted the convoy of motorcycles  passing through Swannanoa.

As a returnee from Vietnam, Smith found his position difficult. He said the draftees fleeing had a right to be afraid but he had to do his duty. Additionally, in interacting with a staunchly anti-war public, he was unarmed on duty.

The experience sat with Smith, who felt a need to show appreciation to fellow veterans.

"They were so mistreated when they came home," said Rick "Hawk" McDowell, a rider from Fayetteville. "They were not asked, they were drafted. If they didn't go, they went to prison. They were forced in to do something for this nation, do something for another country, and when they came back, they got spit on."

Riding across the country

Made up of veterans, retired, active duty, wounded warriors and military parents, McDowell, the former North Carolina coordinator, described the convoy as the most patriotic and loving group in the country. 

"This is America's finest right here," McDowell said. "They're the most incredible human beings."

Riders gathered inside to eat pork sandwiches served by volunteers and other former riders.

The four routes RFTW takes traverse all levels of the country. The group stopping in Swannanoa made up the southern route. 

While McDowell estimated the southern group to measure about 2 miles long when riding, he said other groups can grow to as long as 5 miles, depending on how many riders join each year.

"Most importantly, it's about POW MIAs, but it's the Vietnam vets that did this," he said. 

The column of parked motorcycles wrapped all the way around the Asheville Harley-Davidson building.

Coming from Cookeville, Tennessee, in the morning, the group rode 227 miles to the Asheville Harley-Davidson in Swannanoa, according to Scott Gullion, a veteran who came all the way from Alberta, Canada, to join the run. 

The group operates with military precision, maintaining safe formations with the help of road guards, riders who help direct traffic and the flow of the convoy, and state trooper escorts. Gullion estimated the entire convoy could be refueled within 20 minutes. 

"They've got a fuel platoon," Gullion said. "The platoon goes in, secures the gas station, and when they all come through, the road guards are flagging them in so there's no traffic blocking."

The run's road guards lead and follow the convoy, directing traffic and coordinating throughout the ride.

Although the run was organized by Vietnam veterans, it celebrates all military personnel worldwide. The run also calls for an accounting of all prisoners of war and those missing in action or killed to honor the memory and sacrifice of soldiers in every war. 

Smith has ridden with veterans who've experienced difficulties while riding, remembering friends lost and carrying experiences similar to his own. He said the run allows the riders to feel companionship and appreciation for their service,

"Gunny and his friends wanted to make sure people understood that we have left prisoners of war in Vietnam," Smith said. "The real huge thing for the riders is to get to the wall, find the names and be with people who understand what they went through."

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or emaille@blackmountainnews.com. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.