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Why they ride: Havasu-area veterans motorcycle groups driven by patriotism, honor

May 27, 2019

The roar of the motorcycle engine. The camaraderie of the club. The adrenaline pumping through the veins. The hot pavement that stretches far ahead, promising many more miles to go.

“Just driving down the road, with the wind blowing... it’s an experience of freedom and fun,” Jed Kohler said. But the feeling of freedom isn’t the only reason Kohler rides. He rides to honor our veterans, and for him, it’s personal.

“My dad went into the Army and was in Japan for four years at age 16, fighting in World War II. He’s still alive today at age 90. If he would’ve never made it back, I wouldn’t be here. So I’m very glad and I honor him,” Kohler said.

Kohler is the Arizona assistant state captain of the Patriot Guard Riders. Jed may be his name, but the riders know him as “Muther Hen.” He earned the name because the previous assistant state captain told him, “Everything you do, you do right. It’s done right. I don’t have to worry about it.”

The Patriot Guard Riders is a nonprofit organization, and their mission is to ensure “dignity and respect at memorial services honoring fallen military heroes, first responders and honorably discharged veterans.” They also do “Welcome Home” events and honor flag lines.

“People thank us, but no, no, no. It’s our honor to do this,” he said. “They all deserve to be treated this way,” Kohler said.

When his father returned from fighting in Japan, he joined the police force in Pennsylvania and served 42 street years as an officer, finally retiring at 65. Another reason “Muther Hen” rides is in memory of his cousin, who he saw as his big brother. He was killed in the Vietnam War.

“This whole thing is emotional for me. I’m a very emotional person. Every mission, even the Welcome Homes, I’ll wear sunglasses because I tear up like that,” Kohler said, with a snap of his fingers.

While it’s seen as a motorcycle club primarily, the Patriot Guard Riders’ vision states: “We don’t care what you ride or if you ride, what your political views are, or whether you’re a hawk or a dove. It is not a requirement that you be a veteran. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your income is; you don’t even have to ride. The only prerequisite is respect.”

Memorial Day’s true meaning

For some, Memorial Day is seen as the official start of the summer’s tourist season and a day guaranteed to pack the water. Stores and restaurants buckle down in preparation, grills are prepped and beach day plans are made.

But Stephen Knock, commander of VFW Post #9401, hopes “that people take the time to realize what the day means, and not use it as an excuse to barbecue.”

One way locals can do so is at the Lake Havasu City Memorial Day Ceremony on Monday, May 27. Knock is the master of ceremonies, and the Patriot Guard Riders will be joining the American Legion Riders and Eagle Riders at the event.

The ceremony is being held at Lake Havasu Memorial Gardens at 10 a.m. The proceedings will include a speech from Mayor Cal Sheehy, a presentation of a wreath at Patrick Tinnell’s grave, and a gun salute. Attendees are advised to bring a chair, as there won’t be guaranteed seating for everyone.

When asked if he rides, himself, Knock said, “I wish I could,” with a laugh. He’s kept pretty busy with running the ceremony and handling things for the VFW Post #9401. But when he watches the riders do what they do, it makes him cry “to see such a large group of veterans getting together for such a worthy cause.”

“Whatever the weather may be, their mission is to be there for the veterans,” Knock said. “It’s awesome to see them out there doing that.”

Why motorcycles?

Krystal Hess is a pediatric and surgical nurse who founded Motorcycle Missions, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to veterans and first responders with PTSD that helps those suffering with trauma fight through it and find happiness through motorcycle riding and building.

“Motorcycles, for many veterans, is a way of life after serving their country. It gives them the camaraderie, adrenaline and shared mission they miss while serving,” Hess explained, “and the amount of concentration to ride a motorcycle keeps their minds busy on the ride and not on their anxiety, intrusive thoughts or depression.”

Red Iron Motorcycle Club hones in on that camaraderie aspect that lives in motorcycle clubs.

“We’re what we call a family club. Family comes first, then work, then the club… We gotta all stick together,” said Doug Bryson, president of the Mohave Chapter of the Red Iron Motorcycle Club.

They also work to support veterans, first responders and families fighting cancer and illness. One of their missions is to educate the public on the stigma among motorcycle clubs, which Bryson said he’s encountered himself when he’s wearing his riding gear.

“For 85 percent of the time, I get greeted with smiles, people’s handshakes… but then there’s always that person that looks at you like… you’re the devil,” Bryson explained. “And it’s sad, the stigma. The perception is just so misled.”

But for all of these clubs, it’s about the veterans and people they are honoring. And with a smaller town size, it’s an even greater opportunity to really take the time to focus on each mission and person.

“Everytime we get together, both [former Mayor Mark Nexsen and Mayor Cal Sheehy] would always say, ‘Lake Havasu City is the most patriotic city in the United States,’” Kohler said. “And I believe that.”

When he isn’t riding for his heroes, Kohler plays the drums in a local band called One Way Out. “I’m doing the two favorite things. I love playing drums and singing, and I love doing the Patriot Guard Riders,” he said.

And at the end of the day for Kohler, “It’s a fun life.”

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