MARTINSBURG, West Virginia – Members of the Martinsburg chapter of the Vietnam Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club acted as Santa Claus on Tuesday night as they brought gifts to homeless veterans and their families at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center.
For the second year in a row, members of the Vietnam Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club “adopted” homeless veterans and their families for the gift distribution program.
According to Sarah Tolstyka, public affairs specialist at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, each veteran who receives a gift fills out a wish list for one item, either for themself or a family member. Each veteran’s wish list includes information such as clothing size, age of the recipient and other basic information, and the completed forms are given to the motorcycle club.
A member of the Vietnam Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club who goes by the riding name “Bull” said the club raises money to purchase the gifts by doing long-distance “iron butt rides.”
“An iron butt ride is a thousand-mile ride on a bike in 24 hours. This year, we did 1,090 miles in 19 hours and 20 minutes. People pledge money, so many dollars a mile, like they do for runners or bicycle races, and 100 percent of the money we raise goes to this (gift distribution),” he said.
The club bought 33 gifts for homeless veterans and their families for last Christmas, and Bull said 38 gifts were given out Tuesday night at the VA Medical Center, adding that Kohl’s in Winchester has “really helped the club stretch our dollars” in the past two years. In addition to the gift they requested, each veteran gets six pairs of socks and $10 to spend at the VA Medical Center’s canteen.
“When I say 100 percent of the money we raise for this program goes to it, I really mean it. We have some extra money left over this year, so we’re buying Christmas dinner for six other veterans,” he said.
Bull said the club wants to continue giving Christmas gifts to homeless veterans, and is already planning its 2016 fundraiser iron butt ride to Branson, Missouri, since members of the club will be attending a national meeting of the Vietnam Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club there in the spring.
The Vietnam Legacy Veterans Motorcycle Club is the largest paramilitary motorcycle club in the world, he said, with chapters in all 50 states, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and the island of Malta. The club’s main goal is to help veterans, but Bull said the club also takes on Prisoner of War and Missing in Action issues.
“Our other focus is the veterans, their families and their issues, and that’s what this program tonight falls into. We especially want to help the new guys coming back from Afghanistan, Kuwait and those places,” he said. “Instead of just raising money, we’re meeting people and getting to know them as individuals. This is really face-to-face, eye-to-eye.”
The club does other programs and participates in other events for veterans throughout the year, including the Rolling Thunder ride. Club president “Swamp Rat,” who wore a Santa hat along with his club vest Tuesday night at the VA Medical Center, rides with Rolling Thunder every year.
Bull said many members of the club are Vietnam veterans, and want to see veterans returning home from war treated better than they were.
Tom Wilson, a United States Army veteran who served from 1972-1974, was one of the homeless veterans receiving a gift from the motorcycle club members.
Wilson said he wanted to fill out his wish list to get his daughter a new pair of boots, but she wouldn’t tell him her size because she wanted him to treat himself to something new. He chose a warm, new coat for himself.
“Having the bikers bring gifts means a lot to everybody here. Some of them don’t have the money to get stuff for their kids, and some don’t get much money because they’re not working,” he said.
“The club members take time away from their family and they go out to buy gifts and give back to the vets. They know the veterans are homeless, and they donate their time and energy. The veterans look forward to seeing (members of the club), whether they bring something or not. Sometimes they just come and eat dinner with us.”
Staff writer Mary Stortstrom can be reached at 304-725-6581 or www.twitter.com/mstortstromJN.
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