Wednesday was one of the biggest days of the year at the Wytheville Moose Lodge -- the day Run for the Wall members ride into town. After attending a welcoming ceremony at Withers Park at about 4:30 p.m., the riders – more than 500 of them - hopped on their bikes and headed straight to the lodge, where they enjoyed a tasty steak dinner.
As they entered the building, Moose members lined up to greet every biker, one by one.
How are you? Thank you for your service. Ready to eat?
A little hot and sweaty from the ride. You’re welcome. Why, yes I am.
Inside the lodge, tables were decorated in red, white and blue. There were steaks, chicken, salad, baked potatoes and cake for dessert. Plans for the meal started the night before when lodge members decorated the tables and prepped the potatoes and salad vegetables.
Wytheville has long been a favorite stop along the Run’s Southern Route, thanks in large part to the southern comfort the town shows RFTW participants. And a big part of the hospitality is the Moose Lodge meal.
Late Wednesday morning, Chef James Porter stayed busy carrying food out to two large grills. First came 525 potatoes, followed by 60 pounds of chicken, then 550 (480 pounds) rib eye steaks.
“We aim to feed 750 people,” one member said. Leftovers are shared with lodge members.
“But we don’t eat til after they (the riders) eat,” another member added.
First in line was Chuck “WoodChuck” Wright, of Odenville, Alabama, U.S. Marine Corp retired.
Before he cut into his rib eye slathered in steak sauce, Wright opened up about why he Runs for the Wall. The month of May is a difficult one for Wright. On May 15, 1975, the platoon sergeant lost three Marines in the last combat battle of the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez Incident. PFC Garry L. Hall, LCpl. Joseph N. Hargrove and Pvt. Danny G. Marshall are still missing in action.
Then, on May 20, 2011, Wright lost his ailing wife, Cindy, to suicide. She was missing four days before he learned her fate.
“Those were the worst four days of my life, even worse than the war, Wright said. “The pain, horrors and extreme miseries I experienced for four days searching for my wife somewhat ended when she was recovered and put to rest,” he wrote on the RFTW website.
The families of MIA soldiers still endure that agony, he added.
Five years ago, Wright knew he had to do something to occupy his mind during May. Then he remembered reading about James Gregory founding RFTW. He didn’t know it at the time, but Gregory was also one of the 200 men who fought in the Mayaguez Incident, one of many similarities the two men, now friends, share.
On Wright’s first RFTW, he was in Chattanooga – the overnight stop before Wytheville. The next day would take him through the Sevierville area of Tennessee, where he had spread his wife’s ashes. The journey was his first road trip without his wife, and he decided he couldn’t continue and ride through the area of the country they had enjoyed so much together.
That night, he was staying at a hotel away from the other riders when he spotted another bike in the hotel parking lot. On the motorcycle was a sticker that read “Mayaguez Recovery.” Wright left the bike’s owner a note, asking him to stop by his room. The next morning, the bike’s owner knocked on Wright’s door. It was Gregory, who helped Wright complete the run.
“We really did not know each other while in the unit, but the fact we were there together is all it took to be brothers,” wrote Wright, who has participated in RFTW ever since. “It’s kind of like a new family,” he said, adding that he looks forward to RFTW every year.
Last year, Wright and Gregory were honored to wash the Vietnam War Memorial during the RFTW visit. The names of Hall, Hargrove and Marshall were among the last names engraved on the wall.
Thursday morning in Wytheville, riders and residents gathered again at Withers Park to bid farewell to one another with help from Spiller Elementary School students. Friday evening, the riders reached their destination, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The annual RFTW journey takes riders across the United Sates for 12 days each May. Run for the Wall’s mission is to promote healing among all veterans and their families and friends, to call for an accounting of all prisoners of war and those missing in action, to honor the memory of those killed in action from all wars and to support military personnel all over the world.
To reach Millie Rothrock, call 228-6611, ext. 35, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.