Story by Patricia Dubiel on 06/17/2019FORT POLK, La. Feet propped up on the porch, coffee in hand, sun creeping up over the horizon and the morning song of birds this sounds like a formula to reset the spirit and feel that all is right with the world. But for Chap. (Lt. Col.) Derrick Riggs, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk installation chaplain, that spiritual reset sounded more like thunder on the horizon, not from storm clouds but from a million motorcycles.
Over the Memorial Day weekend May 24-27, a motorcycle run called Rolling Thunder took place in the nation's capitol. Event organizers describe it as a demonstration and protest to bring awareness and accountability for American prisoners of war and missing in action personnel left behind. The first run was held in 1988 with roughly 2,500 riders in attendance. The event has grown over the years and may have become too much for local law enforcement and community to handle, which is why this year's event was billed as the last one.
Riggs was among the gathered throng of supporters.
"Rolling Thunder is the largest single-day motorcycle rally in the world, and it's only a 30-minute ride from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Memorial Wall," he said. "It may not be the last one after all, but it may be moved out of Washington D.C. I think they are looking at either Philadelphia or Dallas for next year."
Riggs described the number of motorcycles in attendance this year as astonishing.
"The first Rolling Thunder I participated in was in 2005. They had about 425,000 bikes there at the north parking lot of the Pentagon. The second one I did was in 2008 and there were just under 700,000," he said. "Because this one (2019) was supposed to be the last one, there was greater participation more than a million riders showed up. Every parking lot at the Pentagon and every access road to get to the Pentagon, was full of parked motorcycles."
While the opportunity to participate in such a massive ride to bring awareness to the plight of POWs and MIAs was an honor in itself, Riggs said he had additional reasons for making the long journey from Fort Polk to Washington.
Riggs explained that motorcycle riders usually group up for long-distance rides, and this was no exception. He teamed up with a few gentleman he has ridden with before, and was in good company: Former assistant secretary of the Air Force Terry Yonkers; retired Gen. Phillip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander-Europe; and Air Force Chap. (Col.) George Youstra, command chaplain for U.S. Special Operations Command.
"When Breedlove, Yonkers, Youstra and I were talking about doing the ride and we had talked about it for months leading up to it we all had different reasons why we wanted to do it. But one common goal for us was to visit a Seal Team 6 Operator that was recently badly wounded and is recovering in Bethesda Medical Center (Maryland)," said Riggs. "He was the No. 1 man in a door stack, and after they blew the door, he went in and took several bullets to his chest plate, but also two in his side and one that cut his femoral artery, plus grenade fragments. He died three times twice on the plane taking him to the hospital but somehow managed to come back. We went to see him the morning of the ride. He had lost 40 pounds since his injuries, so he looked very gaunt, but he was in such phenomenal spirits. The medics that first cared for him and the doctors at the hospital saved his life. He has had 20 surgeries since May 9, but the doctors say he may get back to his team in a year."
Seeing a warrior that survived such horrible injuries was a first for Riggs.
"That was my first time to ever see a service member alive after a hit like that. I've always had my hands in the blood, and I've prayed with Soldiers that were badly shot up as they lay dying but this man was the first one I have seen that survived."
Riggs has been on active duty for 22 years, with 46 months in combat spread over five deployments: Two with 5th Special Forces Group to Afghanistan and Iraq; two brigade deployments with the 82nd Airborne Division into Iraq; and the fifth as Special Operations Command chaplain into Afghanistan.
Riggs began riding in 2003, but it wasn't until 2010 that he decided to undertake a long-distance ride.
"When I came back after the fourth deployment in 2010, I told my mom and dad I was not coming home for block leave. I'd been through a lot of combat and saw many things, and by the grace of God I've never lost any sleep or experienced nightmares or flashbacks, but after that deployment I felt a disconnect. I felt spiritually dried up, and I needed to get away and just be me for a bit," said Riggs.
"So I got on the motorcycle, started out in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and ended up in Oxnard Beach, California, then turned around and came back. That trip was my first long-distance ride, and that was when I realized that riding a motorcycle is therapeutic for me. Every Soldier has to find a mechanism to regain their grasp on home again and riding is mine. It lets me reconnect with the country I have been fighting for, and when you see it from the back of a bike, it's considerably different than seeing it from a car."
Riggs explained how riding a motorcycle allows him to physically experience his surroundings.
"I can feel the temperature change when I move from sunlight to shadow. I can smell the fresh cut hay in a farmer's field or catch a whiff of someone's barbecue or even an unseen skunk or road kill off in some ditch," he said. "You feel everything on a bike. It's as if your soul takes a deep breath. Riding clears my mind and directs my attention to things you just don't notice in a car. I love my country, and riding always lets me see it a little clearer, and brings me a little closer to it."
The Memorial Day weekend ride took on an additional significance for Riggs when he received a phone call from his physician the day he left on his Harley.
"The morning of May 21, the day I was beginning my road trip, I got a phone call from my doctor to let me know that that biopsies taken for speculation of prostrate cancer came back negative. So I spent my first eight hours on the road just singing and thanking God, and it gave me an even greater reason to enjoy this ride, and it was wonderful!" said Riggs.
"I felt that I could now live my life without that worry. When I got to Breedlove's house in Florida that night, we were talking about what we were looking forward to on this ride. We wanted to 1) enjoy riding, 2) clear our heads and think, 3) participate in the Rolling Thunder event and 4) for me, I wanted to experience that reconnect with my country and with God, and enjoy this good news about my health."
Riggs wears the patches of the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Forces, the two units with which he served in combat, on his motorcycle vest. As a result, people often approach him when he stops to refuel his bike, either to thank him for his service or to share a military-connected story.
"There are a lot of veterans in the motorcycle community and we always seem to find each other at a rest stop or gas station, or even if you pull off to the side of the road because you just need to give your body a break after riding 150 miles. Some other rider will see you sitting on the side of the road and stop to see if you're OK, and you end up talking and sharing stories. It's a great way to be proud of being a Soldier and of everything you have done sharing that pride with someone else who has been there."
During the 10-day journey, Riggs travelled 3,283 miles, replaced one water pump, and reset his mind to return refreshed, re-energized and rejuvenated.
"Every motorcycle rider knows that when you get on the back of your bike, that is your sanity. That is your decompression. Give a rider about an hour on a winding road, and all the cares of work, people, bills, life whatever it all just falls away," Riggs said. "When you ride, you are feeling your body lean into turns, the force of the wind and gravity, the texture of the road underneath you it is and I'm a chaplain, so I'd know a spiritual' experience."