Monday, May 31, 2010

I Am Not Afraid

I began wearing a medal of St Joan of Arc around my neck recently. On the back are the words attributed to her, "I am not afraid." This upcoming journey has not been without a healthy dose of fear of the unknown and the physical challenge and wearing the medal as a reminder to not be afraid has helped me. Little did I know I would need it this weekend as well for Rolling Thunder. Upwards of 350,000 motorcycles show up in Washington DC for the rolling protest rally!

I was invited to ride as a VIP escort for Rolling Thunder 2010.

Each year the Gold Star Moms arrive in a bus, all ages. They are women who most often have lost children in a war. I accepted the invitation to escort one of these Moms, with the only stipulation being that my passenger be little. I was assured that this would not be a problem, and sure enough, I was introduced to a petite woman named Donna Casillas. There were a few moments prior to meeting her when I almost backed out of the commitment. There had been talk about the parking at the end of the ride, on the grass. "On the GRASS? I have to ride with a passenger on grass?" Suddenly I was so full of self doubt as to my ability that I started to have tremendous anxiety. This year, there were more escorts than Gold Star Moms, so I quietly told my friend, Joe, that I would be more than willing to be an 'empty' escort rider. But a few minutes later, Joe introduced me to my Gold Star Mom. "Okay", I thought..." this is what I rode 500 miles to do, I will do it."

I have to give "my" Mom a huge amount of credit for the leap of faith that she was about to take. One could not mistake the look of slight trepidation at being matched up with a woman not much bigger than she was as her escort. We chatted a bit, I tried to ease her mind that I was an experienced rider, but I can't blame her one bit for what I saw in her face... I would have probably felt the same way when looking around at all the big burly male riders. Donna was wearing a picture of her son, Army Pfc. Justin Casillas. He was killed in action on Independence day, 2009. Justin was born on Memorial Day 1990. He was 19 years old. Donna told me that Justin is being awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in attempting to save his buddy during a suicide bombing. I told her that was a great honor. She said,"yes, but I would rather have my son back." I just said, "I agree." Thinking, that I probably could not have borne what she has lived through.

We were told to get ready to roll... I kept scanning the bumper to bumper bikes, going over in my head how to control a bike at slow parade speeds. My passenger was looking around and enjoying her perch above the crowds. The drawback to this was that the bike would sway off balance with each body movement as Donna looked around. As we started to move, hundreds of motorcycles at once, moving as a unit, there was no room for error. I felt panic well up inside me as I fought to control the bike with the new center of gravity that seemed to be inconstant flux. The desire to tell Donna to jump onto another bike was at the tip of my tongue, worried that I would fail her.

It suddenly came to me that I had to call upon every ounce of calm and strength and knowledge to control the bike and my insecurity. I asked to not be afraid anymore, I asked for serenity to handle it and asked to be reminded of the simple basics of slow riding and in carrying a passenger. Putting all these to work in combination of my sheer stubbornness to not fail, the bike smoothed out. This job was really a big deal... to escort this Mom through the 4 mile route for the demonstration. It was not about me, but about her. I needed to do this for Donna.

The only instruction I told Donna was not to reach out to all the hands that would be outstretched to her. All it would take would be one person's grasp on hers to make our ride end badly! I told her that I would try to not ride too close to the crowd, and there were a few times when it was necessary, but all was good.

It seemed to take forever to leave the parking lot! But once on the road, I had a steady slow pace for her ride, most of it was in 1st gear so that she could take in the most of the experience.
The crowds were heavy, cheering and waving and some crying....

I was concentrating so hard on the ride that it was not easy to take in the crowd and their faces...but as I started to ride across the Memorial Bridge, a Marine was standing in the middle of the road in salute. I began to cry as suddenly it hit me that he looked like a baby to me. Just as my daughter is at 19 and Justin was when he was killed at 19. But I had to stop crying because I could not see! So again, calling on everything I had to make this a safe ride for Donna, somehow I got myself to stop the tears and refocus.

When we reached the end of the ride, I parked the bike (cheated and parked on the street rather than the grass), got off and gave her a huge hug. I tearfully thanked Donna for allowing me to do this for her, that it was such an honor. We got her back with some other Gold Star Moms and I wished her well and said good bye.

I watched the other bikes roll in for a while and debated walking over to the reflecting pool for the speeches, but I felt like I had done what I came to do.... quietly, I plugged in my GPS and started to head out of DC. My head was full of the events of the weekend. I met some wonderful people, that made me feel as though I have known them forever. They welcomed me under their wings and treated me like a little sister.

My dear friend Mickey (on the right) , spent Saturday taking me to Arlington National Cemetery and The Wall. Both were moving experiences. Arlington was so beautiful and serene, even with the throngs of people also visiting it, I was able to find areas where there were not so many people and be quiet with the sacred place. The rows of simple white headstones made beautiful patterns as they rolled across the hills around the lawn, in each direction I looked, it was either rows or geometric patterns spreading out before me.

There were crowds around the famous graves, but I found the quiet ones tucked in and around the trees much more moving... 'the little guys' who served as valiantly as the well known.
The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was moving to watch, seeing the soldiers glide silently along the path, and then click their heels together when they stop is almost jarring in the silence. What 'hit' me more than anything though, was the Vietnam Veteran who was walking away in tears... it brought tears to my eyes to see him.
Then Mickey brought me to The Wall. I was on a mission, to find the name of Richard D. Buckles and leave a letter and photo for my friend, Ranger. I looked up the name, found the panel and location of Ranger's childhood friend and Mickey snapped a photo for me to send to him.

After that, I helped an older couple take photos for their own album. The Wall was very crowded, it was hard for me to find that quiet that I got at Arlington. I began watching the people, and looking at the mementos that people left. One beautiful white rose, stuck in the crack between the panels, creating a stark contrast of softness against the black marble, struck me in its simple beauty. The big bag of popcorn left with the photo of a soldier on it, however, made me cry. All I could think was that popcorn was probably this boy's favorite snack. This 'boy', had he survived, would probably be older than my 50 years...but he was struck down in his youth, so he will forever be young.

My 1100 mile round trip for only a weekend was a drop in the bucket for the amount of memories that I have collected...

My thanks go out to all who have served our country and survived, those that lost their lives in doing so, and also to those currently serving in battle or in peaceful areas. I bow to you and wish you a safe return home!

Thank you for reading, I know it was a long one this time!



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  2. First and foremost Kate I want to thank you for the compassion and strength you bring to any situation, this one is tough one for all of us. Reading your words feeling your emotion is moving.
    Reality is, the thought of one of My Brothers at arms leaving the Tomb Of the Unknown in tears, the image of that young Mothers pain, the rows of Granite Sentry's representing lives that are no more, the Names upon our wall, your reflection in the marble and the absence of that beautiful smile we that know you always enjoy has brought tears to the face of one crusty old Ranger 3000 miles away.
    Thank you for including Me, Ricky and all our
    Brothers and Sisters on that wall in your life and in your weekend. As far as Beeing afraid, Know this, having paid this respect in this manner they will always be at your shoulder, as you know I am.
    Peace Bee,

  3. Kate,
    After reading this post, I'm all choked up. Your words brought me along on your weekend of honor and deeply touched me. I don't think I could have done what you did this weekend. I'm not sure I'd be strong enough. I have friends on the wall and I've never been able to visit. Thanks for taking me along.
    Rich (PuckerNoMore)