Heading down the highway for a patriotic cause seemed like a natural fit for Charlie Weaver and the Firewalkers.
Weaver, 38, is the president of Firewalkers, a motorcycle-riding group of firefighters based in Denham Springs.
Weaver and his fellow riders heard about the Passing the Flag event, a motorcycle ride in which enthusiasts escort an American flag on a trip from Baton Rouge to Lafayette, through the Patriot Guard Riders, a national motorcycle group that attends veterans’ funerals.
So Weaver and his crew got their motors running Saturday and drove to Harley-Davidson of Baton Rouge on Siegen Lane to join the ride.
Weaver said he has never served in the military, but other members of Firewalkers are veterans, so they wanted to ride to support their country.
“They’re protecting us, so I think we need to do all we can do to help them whenever they come home,” Weaver said right before he took off.
The Firewalkers joined more than 150 other motorcyclists for the third annual Passing the Flag event, hosted by the Baton Rouge chapter of the Nation of Patriots.
The Nation of Patriots is a nonprofit organization formed by Bill Sherer in January 2009 to raise awareness about veterans who are in dire straits physically and financially after returning home from combat.
The group’s signature effort is an annual nationwide ride called the Patriot Tour, in which an American flag flown from motorcycles travels from Sherer’s hometown of Milwaukee to locations across the nation before returning to Milwaukee. The journey begins on Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day.
The tour, which raises awareness and donations, was making its third trip to Baton Rouge. In years past, the Passing the Flag ride traveled from Baton Rouge to Alexandria.
The Baton Rouge chapter is the only group that makes an event out of the tour’s stop in its city, said Paul Aubert, the Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas regional commander for Nation of Patriots and a Vietnam War-era Navy veteran.
“We’re going to keep setting the bar higher each year,” Aubert said.
Before the ride began, Aubert, Sherer and others hosted a ceremony complete with an honor guard, national anthem, playing of taps and speeches from military figures.
Retired Maj. Gen. Ron Richard, president and CEO of the Tiger Athletic Foundation, thanked all veterans in attendance for their service.
“God bless you, all that have fallen and given the ultimate sacrifice,” Richard said.
Sherer told the crowd the history of his event, which had humble beginnings.
Sherer said he set out alone in 2009 with a plan to ride through the 48 contiguous states. However, by mid-July, he ran out of money and wasn’t getting a strong response.
He later came up with the idea of carrying an American flag with him, which he said helped the effort grow into what it is today.
“It was only then that the Patriot Tour became the Patriot Tour,” Sherer said.
Sherer said in an interview after the ceremony that he always wanted to serve in the military, but he never got the chance to make it happen for various reasons, such as school and marriage.
Instead, he formed the Nation of Patriots.
“This is my service to this country,” he said.
After the pomp and circumstance came the fun part.
The bikers ran over to their choppers and, after a brief meeting, revved all their engines at once, the roar of the bikes filling the air.
The flag, carried by Larry Rachal, a member of the Baton Rouge chapter of the Harley Owners Group, headed out first, led by a police escort.
Then the cyclists took off, one by one, with the heavy metal thunder of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” blaring in the background.
“The first time we came through Baton Rouge, we had about 120 people that were present for the event, about 50 riders,” Aubert said after the bikes left. “Last year, we had about 350 people here and approximately 120 riders.”
The Patriot Tour has already given financial assistance to wounded veterans from Louisiana, Aubert said, including a Denham Springs man and Marine Corps member who suffered brain injuries after an attack in Fallujah in 2006. Aubert declined to give the man’s name.
“It’s just an honor to do that for this individual,” Aubert said.