The second annual VIPER Ride will roll out of Milwaukee on August 20, pairing blind veterans with experienced motorcycle operators and their cycles.
Two years ago, former US Marine John Carter (who had been blind since 1967) met TJ Oman, a retired US Naval Officer and avid motorcyclist, for lunch. Their conversation that day ignited the spark for a unique event, dubbed THE VIPER RIDE™: Visually Impaired Patriots Experiencing the Road, Inc.
Today, THE VIPER RIDE is a well-oiled not-for-profit, headquartered in Greendale, with a simple mission: Engage with blind and visually impaired veterans for a day of motorcycling, socializing, food and entertainment. The whole experience is provided at no cost to the participants and is funded entirely by donations from caring individuals and organizations.
The inaugural ride happened in August, 2016, with almost 350 riders, drivers and volunteers participating. Blind and visually impaired veterans from 15 states attended the ride, which far surpassed Carter’s and Oman’s expectations.
With the bar set high last year, THE VIPER RIDE will roll once again on Sunday, August 20. Like last year, the ride will carry participating veterans along one hundred miles of some of southern Wisconsin’s premiere cycling roads. And once again, the village of East Troy will host the midway rest stop featuring food, fellowship and entertainment.
Using military aviation squadrons as a model, THE VIPER RIDE organizes its participants into three categories: “Tailgunners” are the hosted blind and visually impaired veterans who travel as passengers; “Pilots” are experienced motorcycle owner/operators who serve as drivers and escorts; and the VIPER “Groundcrew” is made up of enthusiastic, caring volunteers who fill myriad roles that support the event.
According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs 2017 estimates, there are 129,491 veterans who are legally blind and an additional 1,015,595 who are living with low vision. Couple those statistics with a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in May 2013, which draws a direct link between functional vision loss and depression in adults over 20 years old. Throw in common veterans’ issues like PTSD and the physical and emotional wounds of war, and this all adds up to a high risk of isolation and depression among visually impaired vets. These are the veterans VIPER seeks to serve and engage.
A full year of preparation and planning goes into the ride. A team of lead volunteers meets monthly, carefully planning every detail to ensure the vets are treated to the highest level of honor, enjoyment and safety on event day. Every VIPER Pilot must meet established qualifications and each bike in the formation must pass a pre-ride safety inspection.
Motor-patrolmen from state, county, and municipal police agencies escort the ride, stopping and controlling all traffic for non-stop, total right-of-way passage the entire length of the ride. Local community members often line the route to wave and cheer as the blind riders roll by.
Prior to the event, two dress rehearsal rides provide Pilots and Groundcrew an opportunity to experience the route and run through the timing and tasks to ensure flawless execution on the day of the event.
“We want the Groundcrew volunteers to ride along for the dress rehearsals,” says Executive Director Oman. “I encourage them to close their eyes and experience the sensations that the Tailgunners will experience. It helps them to better relate with our vets.”
When the Tailgunners mount up on the morning of August 20, they will literally and figuratively be mounting a well-oiled machine.
The ride begins at a staging area in the Zablocki VA Medical Center. As they leave the VA grounds, the first thing the bikers experience is a Marine, standing proudly at attention, holding a salute for each and every motorcycle and rider as they begin the day’s adventure. Many Tailgunners and Pilots proudly salute in return.
On the inaugural run, there were pre-ride jitters as well as plenty of nervous excitement. For the Tailgunners, the sound of a revving engine, the smell of exhaust, and the feel of the open road becomes electrifying. “All of the apprehension and nerves we witnessed in the morning gave way to the excitement and a sense of freedom by the midway stop,” recounted Oman.
Kenny Adams, a vet who was shot in the face while serving as a Humvee gunner in Afghanistan commented while waiting to mount up, “If I can go to war and get shot at, then riding a motorcycle is a cake walk.”
Thomas Dunn, a Vietnam combat helicopter pilot, was another of the Tailgunners on the inaugural ride. When asked why he registered to participate he replied, “It’s a challenge. I’ve had a major depression disorder for over 40 years and social anxiety and what have you. My doctors say I have to get out and do things. PTSD doesn’t help it at all.”
Throughout the day, participating veterans will receive attentive and respectful hands-on support from the crowd and volunteers, veteran and non-veteran alike. At the mid-way BBQ lunch, smiling Boy and Girl Scouts and other volunteers will help serve food or sit down to talk with them.
“Doing this is getting out and meeting other people, and talking to people who have different experiences than I do, and learning to appreciate it,” said Tailgunner Tom Dunn at last year’s event. “It’s an experience I’ll treasure. I really will.”