GROTON — Dozens of people stood along the sidewalks of Main Street in Groton, American flags in hand, silent as they listened closely.
Unsure at first if the rumbling they heard was more thunder, they began to cheer and wave as the roaring of engines became clear.
Coming around the bend were nearly 200 motorcyclists making their first pit stop on their 100-mile Highway of Valor Tribute Ride. Starting at Owego Free Academy, the 13th annual tribute ride followed Route 38, which is named to honor veterans of the Vietnam War, all the way to Hannibal. Saturday’s turnout was only half of their usual crowd as thunderstorms and flash-flood alerts dotted Central New York and the Southern Tier.
“It’s a sense of pride,” said Martin Miller of Groton, who has attended the tribute ride every year for a decade to support service members like his sister. “You’re showing support for the country, the flag and the veterans.”
Miller’s sister, Crystal Clark of Newfield, is a veteran of the U.S. Army. She rides the Highway of Valor each year to honor her fellow veterans, and thank those who served in the Vietnam War.
“It’s a perfect camaraderie with other patriotic Americans who really understand some of the sacrifices that people went through so we can be a free country,” Clark said.
The tribute ride brings together veterans from all across the region — a reunion of service members and supporters beyond the friends they see at the local American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars or their Vietnam Veterans of America chapter.
“I wouldn’t have missed out on this,” said Vietnam veteran Jeffrey Largue. “I don’t miss any of these things, I go to everything except funerals — I saw enough of that, I’ve had to bury enough of my friends.”
The motorcyclists spent an hour at the Groton pit stop — parked across the street from the American Legion — gassing up, chatting and eating food provided by Legion volunteers. Largue spent the hour getting to know fellow Vietnam veteran Rick Neild, chatting about everything from their time overseas, to the effect war zones have on a soldier’s mental health.
“Motorcycle riders themselves are very cordial people, but here you get military riders and well, we’re an act all our own,” Neild said, laughing.
“We like to support and take care of one another — don’t make a difference what branch you were in, you all still fall under the same flag.”
The two looked back on the late 1960s, explaining how Vietnam veterans share a unique experience of being soldiers coming home to a nation divided about the war and their service.
“If you came back during the Vietnam era, you were not popular,” Neild said. “You were spit on, stuff thrown at you. It was a terrible time to be a soldier.”
Neild said that he loves seeing the latest generation of soldiers come home to open arms.
“It was these guys that made that happen,” Neild said, gesturing to the hundreds of Vietnam veterans and their supporters. “The sacrifice they made in making people open their eyes and ears to say ‘These guys are never going to be the same, once you go into a war zone.’”
Neild is familiar with the emotional toll war takes. His son, Tim, was a veteran of Afghanistan who committed suicide in October 2017. Neild now dedicates his time to suicide awareness and fighting the stigma surrounding mental health and post traumatic stress disorder.
“The biggest thing is, to be an ear for them — don’t talk, don’t give unwanted advice — if I could go back and just shut up I would,” Neild said, referring to the last months he had with his son.
The tribute ride is more than just getting together for a weekend ride, Neild said, it’s about being together with people who understand.