29 September 2014

Poetry Sets the Pace for 5th Iowa Remembrance Run

A giant U.S. flag suspended between two MidAmerican Energy utility trucks marked the finish line to Sunday's 5th Iowa Remembrance Run. PHOTO: www.redbullrising.com.
More than 1,000 registered runners, families, and volunteers participated in the 5th Annual Iowa Remembrance 5k Run/Walk Sunday morning, Sept. 28, at Raccoon River Park, West Des Moines.

The annual event raises funds for Iowa Remembers, Inc., a Central Iowa non-profit that, in turn, underwrites an annual retreat for survivors of Iowa's fallen service members. The event is traditionally held on Gold Star Mothers Day. The pre-race ceremonies include a reading of more than 100 names of Iowans who have, since 2003, died while in service to their country.

In its fifth year, the event encourages creativity and celebration, as well as thoughtful reverence. Keynote speaker Megan Schoning, for example, memorialized her cousin, Spc. Joshua Knowles, through a narrative poem—one that cursed terrorists and ended with a call for the crowd to sing "Happy Birthday." She and her family members even wore sparkly party tiaras. (With Schoning's permission, her words are presented below in this blog post, in their entirety.)

The final stretch of the race is lined with flags, along with pictures
and names of Iowans who have died in service since 2003. PHOTO:
www.redbullrising.com
Knowles was killed in Iraq Feb. 5, 2004, when killed by an enemy mortar round in the vicinity of Baghdad International Airport. Knowles was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard's 1133rd Transportation Company, headquartered in Mason City, Iowa.

Race times are posted here. Candid photos of the event are available on the organization's Facebook page here.

Other pre-race highlights included:

In other pre-race remarks, Vietnam War-era veteran and retired U.S. Air Force Sgt. Jerry Simmermaker helped remember those Iowans killed or missing from that war. A display commemorating of Iowa's Vietnam-era fallen was placed near the finish line.

KJJY-FM's Eddie Hatfield and Iowa Remembers, Inc. Executive
Director Heather Johnston give pre-race instructions from the bed of a
pickup truck. PHOTO: www.redbullrising.com
The U.S. National Anthem was sung by Maria Doud, an Iowa State University junior majoring in Child, Adult, and Family Services. She'll be opening for David Nail at the university's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences "CALSweek" this Thursday, Oct. 2. The event takes place at Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center, Ames, Iowa.

Before giving race instructions, KJJY 92.5 celebrity race-starter Eddie Hatfield took a selfie with 1,000 race participants.

Here are Megan Schoning's keynote remarks, written in verse, regarding her cousin Joshua Knowles:
I remember the day Josh said he needed to make an important call,
We were in my parents' living room,
Watching the Twin Towers fall.

It wasn't long after that he was deployed away,
He was so proud he could serve his country,
He wouldn't have it any other way.

We stood at the goodbye ceremony,
The sergeant gave his commands.
We gave our hugs and kisses,
A strong family united, holding hands.

He walked up to my daughter,
He grabbed her and held her tight.
He looked into my eyes and reassured me,
Everything was going to be all right.

He said if something did happen,
I needed to be strong.
He said I needed to look after his little sisters,
I told him to prove me wrong.

Days then weeks and months passed by,
He seemed farther away.
He missed so many important things,
I just wanted him to stay.

A few months before he was to arrive home,
We got a phone call in the middle of the night.
I knew Josh wasn't coming home,
He didn't win the fight.
 
As the 1133rd Transportation Company was waiting to check in on the map,
A mortar went through the cab of his truck,
It landed in his lap.

Josh laid where he had fallen,
The enemy took him down,
He knew his life was ending,
He had lost all sight and sound.

He had a beautiful hometown service,
Hundreds lined the road to pray.
It couldn't have been more special,
for it was Valentine's Day.

A few months after his burial, we found ourselves back at a ceremony where this journey had began.
Except we were welcoming the soldiers home,
They could resume their lives as planned.

Everyone was anxious,
Emotions were running high,
Families finally reunited with their soldiers,
That didn't have to die.

As my family stood in the crowd,
We realized we were not alone,
We had so many soldiers salute our fallen hero,
Because they were unable to bring him home.
 
Josh was only 24 when he died,
He had so much to give,
He now looks down on us from above,
We were given the opportunity to live.

Ask anyone that knew him,
They would all agree with me,
He was born to serve his country,
And take care of our family.

As I sat and wrote this poem,
My heart was broken in two,
One side filled with all of our memories,
The other side died with you.

A limb has fallen from our family tree,
It devastates us that you had to go,
But you are finally free.
 
Sometimes, I still feel guilty,
My sacrifice was so small,
For I will only lose a little time,
But you have lost it all.

You will never be forgotten,
My cousin and my friend,
Though death has parted us for now,
We will meet again.

So, when you see a soldier,
Be sure to shake their hand,
Let them know you are grateful,
For giving us this land.

We are all gathered here today,
In honor of those who died,
We are now united as family,
Filled with nothing but pride.

I do not know you're departed loved ones' names,
Or how they may have died,
I don't know all the pain you have endured,
Or how much your family has cried.

I don't know where your loved ones' rest,
Or how many dreams were broken,
But I know each one of us has a bond because of them,
Even if it is unspoken.

I appreciate everyone listening to my story,
We all have one to tell.
As for the terrorists that took our loved ones,
I hope they go to hell.

Before I go ...
My family is amazing,
We have been through so much,
We support each other daily,
We each others' crutch.

In closing, to my cousin Josh:
 
I think of you every day,
But that is nothing new,
I am especially grateful to be here,
Because it is your birthday, too.

I thank you all for listening,
One last request before I go ...
Can you all help sing "Happy Birthday" to Josh?
He would appreciate it, I know.

25 September 2014

Book Review: 'My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir'

"My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir" by Brian Turner

Reading in front of an audience, from behind his fighting-position podium, the poet-turned-veteran surges, then retreats, transitioning back and forth between gritty words and pithy, almost light-hearted insights. Brian Turner, who fought as an infantry NCO in the Iraq War, always seems to have a serious glint of good humor in his eyes. He's aiming for something, peering through his optics, and wants you to see it, too.

With his much-cited war poems, such as "Here, Bullet" (read it here) and "The Hurt Locker," Turner was one of the first writers to take literary point for his generation of 21st century troops. Through words and deeds, Turner has led the way for other veterans to share their own wars, while encouraging civilians to look at conflict with new eyes.

Turner is a force of nature, a learned army of one. Spitting bullets of wisdom, Turner is like the Dalai Lama with a machine gun.

Turner is full of surprises. His memoir is one of them.

Those who have read Turner's poetry collections (2005's "Here, Bullet" and 2010's "Phantom Noise") may hear echoes of familiar stories in his new memoir, the 224-page "My Life as a Foreign Country." There are, for example, downrange suicides, nighttime house raids, and piss bottles chucked at kids. There are also new connections, however, to stories of Turner's family and personal history. These events are woven into a complex and artful narrative, something like a prayer rug, one that invites the appreciation of pattern, as well as parts.

The book's format nearly defies description. Indeed, to label it "memoir" seems almost too workaday, too pedestrian, for the fluid, dream-like quality of it all. This is not some run-at-the-mouth, just-the-alleged-facts war story, the kind that predictably begins "there I was ..." and ends with tall tales of deeds, whether heroic or inhumane.

Field-stripping it down into its component parts is also equally unhelpful: The book is constructed of 135-plus present-tense fragments—some only a few lines in length, others more than a few pages—numbered and grouped into ten chapter-length, untitled sections. Such a description does not make it sound very accessible. Its reality is just the opposite.

Indeed, reassembled as read, the sections link into chains that deliver belt-fed, continuous fire. For example:
There is something in the landscape itself that makes me circle back to it, whether it's jungle or the American West, the woodlands of France, the American South, deserts, rivers, beaches—all perceived, in some ways, as wild spaces, where the architecture of civilization is not at play, the context of human society somehow absent or suspended. A space where the rules are upended. The theater of war, some call it. [...]

To be a man, I would need to walk into the thunder and hail of a world stripped of its reasons, just as others in my family done before me. And, if I were strong enough, and capable enough, and god-damned lucky enough, I might one day returned clothed in an unshakable silence. Back to the world, as they say. [p. 103-104]
Turner's memoir is poetry for people who don't read poetry, non-fiction for people who don't read the news, and "fictional" enough (at least in technique) to fill in the narrative cracks.

This last point is important, given Turner's careful construction, creation, and continued consideration of his own wartime persona. Don't act surprised. All writers do this, filtering narratives and details—even non-fiction ones—to create story and character.

In 2003, Turner deployed to Iraq armed with an MFA and poems already in his pocket. And, in preparation for that deployment, along with the last wills and testaments familiar to all soldiers, he also specified a literary executor. Turner, in short, was not an everyday infantryman. Turner went to war with a mission, primed to observe and report not only on what he saw and experienced, but also on himself, placed in a particular time and terrain.

Now, time and terrain are shifting, and it will be interesting to see what happens next in Turner's poetic life. "Sgt. Turner is dead," he writes toward the end of his memoir. "Some nights he walks the streets and alleys of Mosul, in the company of the dead. Others, he steps in to the homes of the living, perches on the beds of lovers, and considers the world as it continues on." [p. 199]

Even committed to the page, then, a personal history can change, in the telling and re-telling ... or in the re-reading. In this, one is reminded of an anecdote earlier in Turner's memoir, in which a family member is caught on black-and-white film during a beach assault on World War II Guam. Turner writes:
I never considered the cameraman because I have become the camera—its images preserved through the words with which Papa and my parents created the story, the words I've shifted and reshifted, viewing the scene over and over as the years go by. When it comes down to it, we are the camera. [p. 96-97]
As always, Turner is aiming for something, peering through his optics. He wants you to see it, too.

Because you are the camera.

23 September 2014

NYU Medical School Literary Journal to Focus on War

Published by the New York University School of Medicine, the twice-yearly Bellevue Literary Review has announced that its Spring 2015 issue will focus on war-related themes. Deadline for submissions is Feb. 1, 2015.

Under the thematic banner of "Embattled: The Ramifications of War," editors are seeking previously unpublished fiction, non-fiction, and poetry on themes of war and military experience. More generally, the journal focuses on themes of health, healing, illness, the mind, and the body.

The special call for submissions reads, in part:
War is one of the necessary realities of our world. Since the beginning of society, people have pitted against each other, putting their lives on the line for a cause. It pushes the human body and mind to their limits. While war can be seen as an expression of mankind at its worst, it is also war that brings out the most visceral elements of life itself: strength, power, love, death, sacrifice, and the will to survive.

In many ways, experiences of battle capture the most fascinating and inherently powerful paradoxes in our world: the balance of life and death, of soft and hard, of quiet and loud, of fear and bravery. Understanding war is crucial to understanding how we, as humans, live. Literature brings these feelings to life—on the page and in our lives.
Submission guidelines include:
  • Submit via this web-based tool. In special cases, a postal address is available for hardcopy submissions.
  • Word count for prose is 5,000 words.
  • Poetry submissions should include no more than three poems, incorporated into one document.
  • "Previously published" is defined to include works in print or available to the public on the Internet. Exceptions for previous appearances on personal blogs and other on-line venues may be made on a case-by-case basis.
  • Simultaneous submissions are accepted. Editors ask for notification of publication elsewhere.
  • The journal acquires first-time North American rights. After publication, all rights revert to the author.
A Facebook page for the Bellevue Literary Review is here.

18 September 2014

'Free Beer' for 34th Inf. Div. Assoc. Members Sept. 24

Instead of "Attack! Attack! Attack!", how about "Beer! Beer! Beer!"?

For more than 67 years, through events and memorials, the 34th Infantry Division Association has helped remember and celebrate the history of the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. As it seeks to better serve the needs of 21st century citizen-soldiers, veterans, and their families, the association's national headquarters has announced two prototype "meet-ups." The concept is inspired by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association's (I.A.V.A.) "VetTogether" events.

One event will take place in Iowa on 7-9 p.m., Wed., Sept. 24. Details are pending for another, planned in the Rosemount, Minn. area.

Currently serving "Red Bull" unit members and veterans of all eras, ranks, and military specialties are invited to these events. Friends and spouses are also welcome to attend.

"Instead of 'VetTogethers,' we're calling our events 'Bull Sessions,' partly because we want to hear what people have to say about the future of the 34th Infantry Division Association!" says Iowa event co-host Charlie Sherpa, writer of the Red Bull Rising blog. "We're planning our 2015 projects calendar—as well as for the upcoming division centennial in 2017—so here's a great opportunity to offer ideas and suggestions in an informal setting."

Upon arrival and check-in with event hosts, lifetime and new members of the 34th Inf. Div. Assoc. will receive a token for one free beer, well drink, or soft drink. Lifetime memberships in the organization are only $100; an annual membership costs only $10. You can purchase a membership on-line here, or at the event.

The Iowa event will be conducted at:
1908 Draught House
8789 Northpark Dr.
Johnston, Iowa
Click here for map.
A Facebook event page for the Sept. 24 Central Iowa meet-up is here.

The 34th Inf. Div. Assoc. Facebook page can be found here.

16 September 2014

Two New Films Report on Afghan War, 2007 & 2011

Two new documentaries hit store shelves last week, each potentially key to updating viewers' on how U.S. troops have fought in Afghanistan in recent years. The first, "Korengal," is a companion to the 2011 Academy Award-nominated "Restrepo," by film-makers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington. Both films follow a platoon of 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.) soldiers in Eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province in 2007.

The second new documentary, "The Hornet's Nest," compiles the Emmy-winning experiences of father-and-son journalists Mike and Carlos Boettcher, during a year-long embed in 2011 with 3rd BCT, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Kunar Province; and Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, Eighth Marines in Southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

(Readers of the Red Bull Rising blog may remember the special place "Restrepo" had in the 2010-2011 deployment of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd BCT, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division to Eastern Afghanistan. As the feature film neared its 2010 National Geographic Channel release—and recognizing that the Iowa troops were heading to potentially similar terrain later that year—the film's media relations crew forwarded a preview copy of "Restrepo" for use during the unit's pre-deployment training.)

Where "Restrepo" depicts the daily challenges faced by a small group of soldiers, without much time for analysis or reflection, "Korengal" offers space enough to let its subjects (and its viewers) breathe. The content is often just as dramatic as that of the first film, but now, we hear and see the soldiers' struggles to render meaning from their experiences. Topics range from dealing with boredom and adrenalin, to racism and tattoos in the military.

Watching "Korengal" feels like finally catching up with some old Army buddies. The soldiers are a few years older now, better groomed, and better fed. But you can see how Afghanistan is still a constant in each of their lives. Some apparently continue to serve.

The dramatic peak of "The Hornet's Nest" involves Operation Strong Eagle III, which took place in March and April 2011. The helicopter-borne "air-assault" operation reportedly involved 400 U.S. troops and 300 Afghan National Army soldiers, on a search for Taliban targets that included al Qaeda leader Qari Zia Rahman. (For an ABC News report on the operation, including text and video, click here.)

Both "Korengal" and "The Hornet's Nest" depict in high-definition the dangers created by steep slopes, lack of cover, and highly motivated enemies. And, through the lenses of each of their respective reporting teams, also come the stories of the journalists themselves. "We only do this to make a difference," 60-year-old Mike Boettcher tells the camera near his film's completion. "That's why you constantly keep going back. Keep fighting, keep trying to tell these stories. Otherwise, my whole life's been for nothing ... You know something? It's been for something. It has."

Where "Korengal" probes the interior motivations and reactions of its subjects, "The Hornet's Nest" goes further afield in its exterior explorations. Viewers hear the angry buzz of incoming sniper attacks, and witness detonations of Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.) through soldiers' windshields. They see the grim-faced courage of soldiers, searching for mines with hand-held devices, and running to aid of their wounded comrades. The scenery ranges from the hard-scrabble mountains and lush valleys of Eastern Afghanistan, to the sandy, marshy lowlands of the south.

In short, each of these new documentaries provides a key piece toward promoting viewers' understanding, not only of the who-what-where-and-how of soldiering in Afghanistan, but of the intellectual and moral ground we inhabit today.

Watch these movies, before America pulls up stakes.

Watch these movies, to remember the tolls taken, and prices paid on our behalf.

*****

Purchase "The Hornet's Nest" on DVD or Blu-ray, or via streaming services.

Purchase "Korengal" on DVD and Blu-ray, or via streaming services.

Purchase "Restrepo" on DVD or Blu-ray or via streaming services.

"Restrepo" co-producer Tim Hetherington was killed in April 2011 while covering conflict in Libya. A documentary of his life and work, including his experiences in Afghanistan, has also recently been released via streaming media. Purchase "Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington."

09 September 2014

A FOB-themed Eatery? 'Welcome to T.G.I. FUBAR's™!'

No joke. Chris and Daisy Oswalt plan to open a FOB-themed restaurant near 
Camp Pendelton, Calif.
In a news report recently highlighted by author David Abrams' ("Fobbit") official Facebook page, former Lousiana National Guard soldier Daisy Oswalt and her husband Chris discussed their plans to open a military-themed restaurant near Camp Pendleton, Calif. The "FOB Bunker Bar and Grill" will serve items such as burgers, fried fish, and (wait for it) "M-WRAP" sandwiches, "Napalm nachos," and homemade Meals, Ready to Eat (M.R.E.).

The acronym "FOB" stands for "Forward Operating Base."

"We’re about the survivors, the guys who went through hell," Chris Oswalt told the Marine Corps Times. "For this generation of desert warrior, they’re going to see a lot of the things from the FOB to make it like home as much as possible."

Sounds great, except for the fact that you don't want a FOB-themed restaurant to seem like home. If anything, you want it to feel like a FOB! That, and that a FOB isn't so much of a hell, as much as it is a pergatory.

Here are some of our suggestions to help take this casual-dining-under-fire concept to the next level:
  • Staff will make announcements of birthdays and incoming mortar rounds over a Big Voice loudspeaker, which long-time patrons will come to ignore.
  • Retired sergeants major will serve as maitres d'. No one will spell the plural of either term correctly.
  • "No blouse? No boots? No prior service."
  • "Try our Boomin' Onion(tm)!"
  • Complimentary service of "disinfected / non-potable" water; ration of 2 lbs. of ice per customer per day.
  • Complimentary MRE crackers at table. Under no circumstances should these be taken internally.
  • Take-out containers will be Styrofoam clamshells. Non-uniformed personnel will not be authorized take-out.
  • Catering by Mermite available upon request, not less than 72 hours in advance.
  • "Do you want live-fires with that?"
  • Dining room patrons will be required to open-carry an unloaded and cleared weapon at all times.
  • Reflective Safety Belts will also be required. Especially in front of the salad bar.
  • Big-screen televisions will display patrons' favorite sports events via Armed Forces Network. All air-times will be offset 13.5 hours.
  • Restrooms will consist of portable chemical latrines and hand-washing stations.
  • Kitchen personnel will wear hair nets and "beard arresters."
  • "Warning: Pork chops contain pork."
  • Battle captains and NCOs will be entitled to "buy-one, get-one" special on so-called "TOC-O Tuesdays."
  • "Join us for salsa dancing Saturday!"
What should we to call our new restaurant enterprise? Here are a few ideas we're knocking around:
  • "Kentucky FOB Chicken"
  • "Iraqibee's"
  • "Hard TOC CafĂ©"
  • "Groundhog Dave's"
  • "Red Lobster Rising"
  • "There-and-backagain's"
And, finally, our current favorite:
  • "Hooah-ters"

04 September 2014

Mil-Poetry Review: 'Letter Composed During a Lull ...'

"Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting" by Kevin Powers

In a 2014 poetry collection titled "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting," Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers successfully bridges between stories of service and sacrifice, and explorations of an individual's place in society, geography, and history.

The poems are often short—many are just a page or two, and only a few clock in at more than three. Without losing any richness of word or meaning, Powers' language seems somehow less lyrical, less breathless, than his critically perfumed 2013 novel, "The Yellow Birds," which is set during the Iraq War. Rather than sweeping readers along in rapid and burbling rivers of prose, page after page after flowery page, the poetry collection delivers discreet dispatches of experience—bite-sized and chewy.

As a result, the work is accessible, approachable, and eminently shareable. Believe it or not, this just might be a poetry book you could read aloud in the barracks, without starting a fight.

The book comprises 33 poems, and is divided into four parts. The first half contains government-issue titles such as "Blue Star Mother" and "Meditation on a Main Supply Route." In these poems, Powers unfolds and unpacks the drab nomenclature in ways that resonate with soldiers and those who love them. In "Improvised Explosive Device," for example, he re-imagines the poem first as a bomb to be detected, then gradually expands the metaphor in waves of heat and smoke and jagged metal. Even before he lights the poem's figurative fuze, there is a desperate need to detect the threat, to perceive the unseen, to see where things lead. It begins:
If this poem had wires
coming out of,
you would not read it.
If this words in this poem were made
of metal, if you could see
the mechanics of their curvature,
you would hope
they would stay covered
by whatever paper rested
in the trash pile they were hidden in.
But words or wires would lead you still
to fields of grass between white buildings. [...]
Powers' poetic explorations of the military experience include eyes on the home front. In "Separation," his narrator rails against a group of "Young Republicans / in pink popped-collar shirts," and then moves on to consider the loss of youth, identity, and even his weapon:
[...] I want to rub their clean
bodies in blood. I want my rifle
and I want them to know
how scared I am still, alone
in bars these three years later when
I notice it is gone [...]
In the book's second half, Powers relocates his reconnaissance of dread and isolation to different times and different terrain. There is fire here, as well as earth. He takes the reader to Dresden, Germany, seconds before the flames of World War II, and to the pre-apocalyptic moments before our sun goes supernova. He tells the story of a bloodied working-class Toughman competitor, losing to win a way out of West Virginia. He revisits a broken lock and canal on the James River, a place of childhood memory, which has twice failed to bring about an economic boom.

In all of these tales, Powers continues to probe questions of where and how an individual is rooted, whether in time or place, history or dirt. In "Grace Note," he writes a dirge familiar to any weary traveler. It does not explicitly mention war, but one can easily read war into it:
[...] Yes, we're due:
a break from everything, from use,
from breath, from artifacts, from life,
from death, from every unmoored memory
I've wasted all those hours upon
hoping someday something will make sense:
the old man underneath the corrugated plastic
awning of the porch, drunk and slightly
slipping off into the granite hills
of southeast Connecticut already, the hills sheaved off
and him sheaved off and saying
(in reply to what?) "Boy, that weren't nothing
but true facts about the world."
That was it. The thing I can't recall
was what I had been waiting for. [...]

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.