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Petaluman rides motorcycle across country for veterans

Victor Vaz sits on his motorcycle with Cooley, a Jack Russell Terrier that sometimes rides along with him.

Jamie Hansen/ Argus-Courier Staff
Published: Monday, June 24, 2013 at 1:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 8:57 a.m.

It's one thing to ride a motorcycle across the country in the name of fallen veterans. It's another to have a close brush with a tornado, hit a deer and keep going, all with only one good eye.

That's what Petaluman Victor Vaz did this May after a friend invited him to join an event called Run for the Wall, now in its 25th year. About 1,500 participating motorcyclists take to the highway to ride from California to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., all to honor fallen or missing-in-action soldiers and to promote healing among veterans and their families.

Along the way, riders make stops at memorials, veterans' hospitals and schools.

“You're not doing it for yourself, you're doing it for those who can't,” said Vaz, who never served in the armed forces but had friends who did.

At the beginning of the trip, he received a picture of Major John O'Grady, who went missing in action in Vietnam. He carried the picture on the back of his motorcycle all the way to Washington.

“I'm really proud of what he did,” said friend and neighbor Bob Berry, who served during the Vietnam era and lost three friends during the war. He first got to know Vaz through a car detailing business that Vaz ran for about 10 years. “It meant a lot that he rode to the wall.”

Vaz, a one-time Elvis impersonator and skydiver who says he's been riding motorcycles ever since he “came out of the womb” is no stranger to adventures.

But his ride to Washington in honor of veterans, he said, was different — and better — than all the rest.

“I like to do new things, to have adventures,” he said. “But out of everything I've done, this takes the cake. Nothing will ever surpass it.”

Vaz, 51, grew up on a ranch in Petaluma and “lives the motorcycle life,” as one friend put it. He looks the part with pierced ears, salt and pepper rockabilly hair, and a closet full of leather jackets.

His Harley Davidson has been custom designed to resemble a 1950s bomber plane.

But his two small dogs, a chihuahua and a Jack Russell terrier, reveal a softer side. He's converted most of his yard into a neighborhood dog park called “Field of Dogs.” The Jack Russell, Cooley, sometimes rides along in a special carrier, protected with a leather helmet and goggles.

Cooley stayed home for Vaz's most recent adventure, which began when he rode out of town on May 12. Each day, he cruised closer to Washington in a line of motorcycles that stretched down the highway for more than eight miles.

In Kansas, they rode past tornadoes that ravaged the area. They rode on, against gusting winds and pelting rain. Each night, they had to make their destination, usually between 200 and 300 miles closer to Washington than when they started. Most often, they didn't even stop to put on raingear.

Some motorcyclists got into accidents along the way and were cared for by medical personnel that accompanied the caravan.

The group had to keep riding; they couldn't stop to help.

That was hard for Vaz, who had been in two major accidents, one in 2009 in which he nearly lost his leg and another in 2011 that left him blind in his left eye. When asked about how the eye affects his riding, he shrugged. “I just deal with it.”

But, sticking to the schedule meant they reached D.C. on May 25, just before Memorial Day.

For Vaz, arriving in the nation's capitol was the pinnacle of the entire experience. A picture taken at the time shows him overcome with emotion.

“The event, educating people about (soldiers missing in action) definitely opened my eyes,” he said. “I'd never been to the wall, and it reached into your soul, brought out feelings I never knew I had.”

Vaz headed to the Vietnam Veterans' wall to find his major's name. He laid the picture he'd carried across the country to rest underneath it.

He and the other bikers joined 750,000 motorcyclists for the Rolling Thunder parade, also to honor Vietnam veterans.

Vaz and a friend rode back to California on their own. They chose smaller roads and took their time, meeting people and making friends along the way.

Then, near Glenwood Springs, Colo., a deer leapt from behind a bush into the path of Vaz's motorcycle. One of Vaz's teeth was knocked out, his leg was badly sprained and his motorcycle was damaged.

He bent his fender back into place with a pipe borrowed from a nearby construction site, then rode to a fire station, where he got medical attention. After that he kept riding, returning home on June 5.

A week after returning home, he was still a little sore from the accident as he pored over pictures of the trip in his “man cave,” a room dominated by a pool table and plastered with pictures of motorcycles and concert posters. But he spoke of the experience with a happy glimmer in his eyes.

“You get so into this emotionally, it's like a brotherhood,” he said. “You get a family for life.”

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@ar guscourier.com.)

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