by Erik S. Hanley from https://www.jsonline.com
A motorcycle ride supporting veterans with disabilities is rumbling through Oak Creek later this month
When T.J. Oman, a retired Navy lieutenant commander in Wisconsin, reached out to a fellow veteran in Minnesota about the fifth VIPER ride, he learned the man had been diagnosed with cancer and had months to live.
VIPER, or Visually Impaired Patriots Experiencing the Road, will hold its fifth annual motorcycle ride on Aug. 22 in Oak Creek at the Oelschlaeger-Dallmann American Legion Post 434, 9327 S. Shepard Ave. The Minnesota man has traveled to the Milwaukee area for every past VIPER event, but his sister was keeping this year’s announcement from him because of his diagnosis, Oman, one of the VIPER ride founders, said.
“I messed up her plans because when I didn’t see his application this year, I put together an email and sent it to a batch of people curious about their absence,” Oman said.
Now that he knows the ride is happening, despite his diagnosis, that veteran is coming to ride.
Motorcycle owners, known as “pilots,” are partnered with a veteran called a “tailgunner.” The duos stay together throughout the day’s events. Volunteers are known as the “groundcrew” and they work to give directions, welcome participants, set up food and drinks, clean up and more.
“We’re looking forward to it this year because we missed it last year,” said John Carter, a former Marine and co-founder of the VIPER ride. The 2020 ride was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Initially only for blind veterans, the ride recently became “the VIPER ride plus+” expanding to allow veterans with any physical disability that prevents them from operating a motorcycle. There is no cost to participants.
“We don’t charge anybody a dime, this is not a fundraiser,” Carter said.
2021 VIPER ride schedule of events
Early in the morning, breakfast will be offered, Carter said. The 50-mile, 90-minute ride through Milwaukee County will kick off around 11 a.m. with two-wheel motorcycles, trikes and motorcycles with sidecars. This will be the first year incorporating a lot of freeway driving with the entire return trip on the interstate, Oman said. After the ride, a big luncheon with live music will be held.
Overall, Carter estimated the event will last from about 8 a.m. to 3:30 or 4 p.m.
All motorcycles large enough to carry a passenger safely are allowed on the ride. Organizers validate every driver’s license for a motorcycle endorsement, get a copy of everyone’s insurance and perform a full safety inspection on every motorcycle.
“It takes a little bit of time but everything we do is all about the VIPER ride and participants,” Oman said. “The reason we do this is the social side of it, just to hang out and talk with these guys. Some of these guys are true heroes.”
The ride will be escorted by police on motorcycles. Oman said the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office has been a supporter “from the very beginning.” Additionally, officers from the Milwaukee Police Department and the Wisconsin State Patrol have ridden with the group.
“We couldn’t do it without them,” Carter said.
In the past, the ride lasted substantially longer, Oman said. The first two years the ride went out to Kettle Moraine and East Troy, totaling 111 miles round trip. The second year was a little shorter but still hit triple digits on the odometer. After two years, some veterans said it was a little long, Oman said.
VIPER rides have nationwide participation
Oman, who served on a nuclear submarine during his tenure in the Navy, said this year was the smallest group of participants since they started with 30 tailgunners and between 50-55 motorcycle pilots. In the past, the event had about 50 tailgunners and as many as 120 motorcycles.
Oman attributed the smaller sign-up numbers to the cancellation of the ride in 2020.
“The out of sight, out of mind mentality affected us,” he said. Oman said many were likely still hesitant to come out and do anything in a group as well given the surging number of delta variant cases.
Registration for the ride itself ended in June, but Carter said everyone is welcome to attend the other festivities.
“We match up pilot and tailgunner and put time and effort into making sure we match the tailgunner and the pilot for size,” Carter said. “We try to get it all finalized in June so we know what we’re doing.”
In the event’s inaugural year, participants from across the country, encompassing 15 different states, attended the ride. Carter said one regular rider travels from Mesa, Arizona every year.
“He takes a train here, travels three to four days, rides that morning, then takes a bus back,” he said.
While many friendships were gained from the event, some early-year participants have been lost.
“I never really foresaw the impact and the long-term effect but a lot of these guys, the pilots and the tailgunners, have become lifelong friends,” Oman said. “They communicate year-round, they maintain contact, it has become a family and as a result of that we’ve lost a few.”
One veteran and big supporter of the event died a few months ago, Oman said. The group is “breaking the rules” and letting his wife and daughter ride with them this year in his honor.
“They’re part of the VIPER family,” Oman said.
The VIPER ride website has a memorial page for participants that have passed to “keep their memory alive as part of the ride,” Oman said.
“Unfortunately, the list keeps growing, but I guess part of living is dying,” he said.
Supporting veterans with disabilities
Oman said he’d been trying to convince Carter to do a motorcycle ride for the blind in the past. Carter, who became the president of the Blinded Veterans Association of Wisconsin, was looking to enhance recruitment for the organization. Out to lunch one day, the two came up with the VIPER ride.
“We mutually agreed it would be a good tool for recruitment,” Oman said, adding he’d been involved with motorcycle rides for the blind in the past.
Carter said one goal for the event was to get blind veterans back out into the fresh air “experiencing something they wouldn’t experience again.”
“Once you lose your sight you don’t want to participate in much, many don’t,” he said.
Carter wasn’t thrilled about the motorcycles, but Oman convinced him to get on a trike with a friend every year for the VIPER ride. For Oman, he doesn’t need convincing.
“I don’t need much of a reason to ride a motorcycle,” he laughed. He still invites Carter out for other rides but with no success.
“Motorcycles scare the liver out of me,” Carter said.