- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2013

Three lanes of Interstate 66 empty of traffic except for two columns of motorcycles is a strange sight. The lanes seem wider, the signs larger, the horizon farther away.

But then you hear the cheers, see the shadowy silhouettes lined along a distant overpass with hands waving and flags flying, and you remember that while closing off 20 miles of major highway might be remarkable, it’s also the way Northern Virginia shows respect.

For 15 years, Patriot Harley-Davidson in Fairfax has hosted a motorcycle ride before the annual Rolling Thunder event, a 500,000-motorcycle behemoth parade and protest honoring prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. It boasts more than 3,500 bikes from around the country journeying to the Pentagon staging area in advance of the larger rally.

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The event begins like you might imagine it — an assault on the senses. By mid-morning, the smell of coffee, leather and cigars wafts through the modestly sized parking lot of the Fairfax motorcycle dealership.

While the day ended up delightfully sunny and warm, in the hours before the ride began the air was chilly, so many of the bikers stayed bundled up. Sitting snuggly in a side car, a cup of black coffee in his hands and a white blanket over his legs, 62-year-old Lea Daniels sat quietly watching the preparations.

Mr. Daniels told me he was a prisoner-of-war for two years in Vietnam — he joined the Marines when he was 17 — and had lost a part of his tongue during his time in captivity. His hearing is declining, and he needed to look at me directly to understand what I was saying. But we got to talking about how he’d come to find himself in Fairfax on Sunday morning.

A chaplain with the nondenominational Arkansas-based Christian Motorcyclists Association met Mr. Daniels only a week or two ago, while he was homeless in Richmond. After some convincing, Mr. Daniels agreed to be an honored rider.

I asked him why he agreed to do it.

“I do what I can,” Mr. Daniels said. “Once a Marine, always a Marine. This means a lot, everybody coming together for a common cause.”

West along Fairfax Boulevard, neat rows of polished bikes were parked, waiting for the start of the ride. Each biker has his or her own reason for riding. Some proudly pointed to their own pin or patch indicating their branch of service in the military, while others spoke solemnly about memories of a fellow soldier who didn’t make it home. But the ride isn’t just to commemorate the fallen.

Dale and Cyndi Harkleroad came from Ohio in honor of their son, who’s serving his second tour in Iraq.

Mr. Harkleroad, 60, told me he had heard about the Ride of the Patriots for years.

“I’m a veteran. We decided we should go,” he said.

“We couldn’t sleep we were so excited,” Mrs. Harkleroad added.

By the time the ride began, the excitement and growing impatience was both palpable and audible. For more than a mile, motorcycle engines turned over, some revved by their riders, while others purred in anticipation. At Patriot Harley-Davidson, riders knew their place in line but still jostled to their positions to ensure they left with the best view of crowds.

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