Louisiana motorcyclists ‘pass the flag’ to help veterans

Joe Parks answered the call Saturday to help veterans when he joined more than 180 motorcyclists to accompany Old Glory to Lafayette, part of a nationwide tour honoring veterans and bringing awareness to the financial struggles of returning soldiers.

His good friend, Mike Johnson, was with Parks for the fifth annual Passing the Flag event during the Baton Rouge stop of the national nonprofit Nation of Patriots’ signature event, the Patriot Tour.

Money raised through the event is used to help veterans and their families.

Parks, 70, of Baton Rouge, didn’t have an opportunity to serve in the military himself. A bad back caused him to be turned away when he tried to enlist at age 18.

But he appreciates the sacrifices made by those who have served, including his older brother and Johnson. “They gave us what we have now,” Parks said of veterans.

The Nation of Patriots group was founded in 2009 by Bill Sherer in Milwaukee. He wanted a way to give back to veterans and tried to ride his motorcycle through the 48 continental United States with one American Flag to bring awareness to the financial struggles of returning soldiers.

However, he was unable to finish the ride himself, making it through 33 states before running out of money, so he enlisted Harley-Davidson groups in every state to try to make his dream possible.

Thus, the Patriot Tour was born.

During the tour, riders in the 48 states carry Old Glory through the country in 100 days beginning on Memorial Day and ending on Labor Day.

Riders from Mississippi passed the flag to the Baton Rouge chapter of the Nation of Patriots on Friday at the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial and Museum.

Parks, Johnson and flag bearer Steve Snider, a 20-year Air Force veteran, took part in a ceremony to honor veterans and their sacrifices before they and other riders wheeled out of the parking lot at the Baton Rouge Baton Rouge Harley-Davidson on Siegen Lane. They were headed to Interstate 10 for a westbound trek to Cajun Harley-Davidson in Scott for the next leg of the tour.

Paul Aubert, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas regional commander of the Nation of Patriots, said Baton Rouge in the past two years has raised the most money for the Patriot Tour than any other stop on the tour and are on their way to leading the nation again.

All the money raised by the nonprofit organization goes to help the families of wounded veterans and all the money raised in Louisiana stays in the state.

In an interview after the ceremony, Aubert said they raised about $4,800 in 2012 and $5,300 in 2013.

A Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Navy, Aubert said he spent a long time thinking about the sometimes poor treatment Vietnam veterans received before realizing their importance to returning soldiers today.

“As long as Vietnam veterans exist, no returning soldiers will ever be disrespected or experience disdain for their service,” he said to cheers and applause. “We will stand as a vanguard to those who (we) have handed the torch of liberty and freedom to.”

Aubert reminded everyone that the freedom Americans celebrate is not free, but is paid for with the blood, sweat and tears and veterans and their families.

The keynote speaker was Brig. Gen. Dorothy Pocklington, the first female officer in the U.S. Army Reserves to attain the rank of general. She spoke of the sacrifices women have made for the country going back to the American Revolution.

The ceremony closed with an a cappella rendition of “Wind Beneath Our Wings” by Carolyn Dunbar, a nurse at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System in New Orleans for 32 years. The Baton Rouge Pipes and Drums performed “Amazing Grace,” closing the ceremony.

Then it was time to ride.

The riders gathered for a brief safety meeting, then walked to their bikes amid the thundering roar of nearly 200 motorcycles all turned on at the same time.

Law enforcement officers led the group out to block off the street. Snider, carrying the American flag, was first out of the parking lot, followed one at a time by the hundreds of riders packed tightly into the Harley-Davidson parking lot.

About 20 minutes after the last bike left the lot, Aubert called his counterpart in Lafayette to let him know the convoy was on its way.

Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter, @ryanmbroussard.