02 September 2014

Scenes from a Memorial Motorcycle Ride

More than 250 riders participated in the Third Annual Donny Nichols Memorial Ride and Poker Run, which originated in Shell Rock, Iowa last Saturday morning, Aug. 30.
On a gray Saturday morning alongside a small Iowa river, more than 200 motorcycles and their riders assemble a rolling memorial to U.S. Army Spc. Donny Nichols, killed in action in Eastern Afghanistan in 2011. There are hugs and handshakes, laughs and raffles, drinks and food. There are also still a few tears. And, of course, the more-than-occasional sound of two-piston thunder.

Located along a river with which it shares a name, the town of Shell Rock, Iowa, pop. 1,296, boasts an picturesque downtown. The main drag is a few blocks of brick storefronts, comprising a couple of bars, two hair salons, a daycare, the Solid Rock Baptist Church, and city hall. On this day, both drinking establishments post signs welcoming bikers in for breakfast. The sky is overcast, which, I am told, isn't necessarily a bad thing. Fewer sunburns that way, one of the riders says. There is enough wind to wave the flag. Occasionally, the sun knocks though the ceiling. In all, good weather for a memorial event—partly sunny, with dark cloud bunting.

Memorial to Army Spc. Donny
Nichols located at Waverly-
Shell Rock High School,
Waverly, Iowa.
Donny Nichols, 21, was killed April 13, 2011 in Laghman Province, when an improvised mine detonated under the vehicle in which he was traveling. There's a memorial stone to Nichols now, located on the grounds of Waverly-Shell Rock High School, from which he graduated in 2009.

Equally important in maintaining his memory, however, is an annual memorial motorcycle ride and poker run his friends and family run in his name. This year marks the third such event. Each year, the event raises funds for a different patriotic charity or veterans'-related cause. This year, it was Flags for Freedom Outreach, a Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. non-profit that supports and remembers wounded soldiers during recovery and reintegration.

In the pre-ride gathering are two service animals associated last year's fund-raising beneficiary, Retrieving Freedom, Inc., a Mississippi- and Iowa-based non-profit that trains service dogs for use by military veterans. Together with their trainers, yellow Labrador "Valor" and black Labrador "Bender" win hearts and minds while circulating through the crowd.

Registration takes place on a sidewalk outside of The Cooler. ("The HOTTEST place in town," according to a sign.) There, volunteers take registrations, and sell T-shirts, bandanas, and other fund-raising merchandise. They also sell tickets for a "50-50" drawing—the winner takes half, with the remainder going to charity.

The "Forward Operating Booth" of 34th Inf. Div. Assoc., which donated
$5 for every "Red Bull" emblem displayed by passersby.
Across the street, members of the 34th Infantry Division Association are conducting a free raffle for two "Red Bull" division flags. Nichols was a member of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.), which is located in Waterloo, Iowa and part of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (34th Inf. Div.).

In 2010-2011, the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Inf. Div. (2-34th B.C.T.) deployed more than 3,000 troops to Afghanistan. News reports noted it was the largest deployment of Iowa soldiers since World War II.

Justin Foote signs a "Red Bull"
flag donated by the 34th Inf.
Div. Assoc. to the family of
Donny Nichols.
At the group's new "Forward Operating Booth," 34th Inf. Div. Assoc. members chat up other "Red Bull" soldiers, past and present. In addition to the flag-raffle, the group donates $5 for every "Red Bull" image—patch, tattoo, membership card, T-shirt, whatever—displayed by ride participants and attendees.

Ashlee Lolkus of Johnston, Iowa, who was a public affairs soldier during the 2010-2011 deployment to Afghanistan, is part of the association's outreach team in Shell Rock. "We're looking for new ways to celebrate our 'Red Bull' history, from WWII North Africa and Italy, to 21st century Afghanistan and Iraq," she says. "Donny's story is part of that tradition, and we're proud to help remember him."

Members of the event's road management team sported high-visibility
T-shirts featuring a "Red Bull" emblem.
Wearing a high-visibility yellow T-shirt with a "Red Bull" on the back, Ken Halter is part of the road management team for the event. The team rides ahead and helps block cross-traffic, when necessary. Halter, who is also a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, was part of the team that helped out with Nichol's funeral procession. "This is just kind of what we do," he says. "Serve the soldier, and the soldier's family."

Local law enforcement officials also help out along parts of Saturday's route, a round-trip that includes stops in Shell Rock, La Porte City, Waverly, and Waterloo.

Emcee J.R. Rogers
Using a microphone and speaking from a sidewalk curb, J.R. Rogers of Denver, Iowa, formally opens the event. "The numbers [of riders] are always very impressive here," he tells the crowd. "I'm in awe of them every year. And ... it always looks pretty bad-ass when we roll in together."

("The Red Bull [emblem] is again incorporated into the ride," Rogers says later in his remarks, "not only as a tribute to Donny, but to his brothers and sisters who continue to serve in uniform.")

Rogers calls the crowd's attention to the family and friends of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Davis, 19, killed in Southern Afghanistan's Helmund Province on May 7, 2010. Some of them wear kelly green T-shirts from their own memorial ride in Perry, Iowa, conducted earlier in August.

More formalities: Those gathered in the street recite the Pledge of Allegiance–there's a large flag hanging from the side of the building–and Pam Hart of Allison, Iowa sings the U.S. National Anthem. There is a quick drawing for the name of the first 50-50 winner, and then the riders begin to mount up for the day's ride.

Jeff and Jeanie Nichols ride a three-wheel Harley-Davidson painted out
as a tribute to Donny Nichols.
Donny's parents, Jeff and Jeanie, ride to the front of the formation in a Harley-Davidson three-wheeler painted out as a tribute to Donny. Depicted on the vehicle are stars, stripes, and pictures of Donny and his military awards. Just over the license plate is painted a banner, which reads, "Riding in tribute to Specialist Donny Nichols."

Suddenly, there is something like a rumble of thunder. The riders collectively roll out, surging toward the next stop. Together, they become a pulse, a connection between towns and people, a memory of a storm.

They will be back. Remember.

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