By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — As the motorcycles rolled slowly by in the afternoon sun, a blinding sea of chrome and leather and noise, Jim Ballinger was smiling.
Three decades ago, he was an infantry grunt in Vietnam. He has two Purple Hearts, a few scars, and a host of wrecked relationships to show for it. After returning from the war, his mind pulsed for years with violent thoughts, and he had trouble reconciling his life with the 58,000 deaths his war brought to America.
“I was full of guilt,” the 50-year-old Toledoan said. “I thought I didn’t do enough to save my men. They were dead, and I was alive, but I felt I should have been with them.”
But over the last few years, Mr. Ballinger has gotten help from a variety of sources, including psychiatric therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s stitched his life together. He’s begun to come to terms with what the war did to him.
And now, watching a parade for him and for all Vietnam veterans, he was smiling.
“They didn’t kill all of us,” he said. “There’s some more of us who made it back.”
Mr. Ballinger was one of about 35 Toledo-area residents who made a trek to Washington this weekend to attend the 13th annual Rolling Thunder parade. It’s a gathering of more than 200,000 motorcyclists from around the country for a ceremonial run through the nation’s center of power.
It’s meant to bring attention to prisoner-of-war issues, but it is also the homecoming parade most Vietnam veterans never received.
“It’s time these soldiers got some respect and some homage,” said Joe Berger, another Toledoan and Vietnam veteran.
The sound made by tens of thousands of motorcycles revving their engines makes words like “deafening” and “roar” seem downright inadequate.
Bikers began to descend on the parade’s starting point – the parking lot of the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. – not long after dawn yesterday. By noon, when the parade began, the parking lot was filled with bikers, talking about everything from Vietnam to what they’d like to see in next year’s Harley models.
At noon, the parade began to move out, slowly. With an estimated 200,000 bikes on hand, it took hours for the last motorcycles to leave the parking lot.
Two or three abreast, the bikers crossed the Potomac River via the Memorial Bridge at Arlington National Cemetery. Slowly they crawled along the Mall, passing the Lincoln and Washington memorials and ending at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Along the way, children in leather riding gear waved flags, men with ponytails called out to friends, and women with tattoos jabbed peace signs into the air. One woman watching the parade made it her goal to tell every passing biker: “Welcome home, boys. Welcome home.”
For veterans from around the country, it’s a validation of what they went through decades ago.
This was the third parade for Charlie Garrett, 50, a journeyman sheet metal worker from Westland, Mich. The ex-Marine said he kept his feelings about the war locked up for decades.
“I kind of stayed in the closet for a while,” he said. It took the election of President Clinton, who avoided Vietnam service in the 1960s, to make him become active.
Daryl Curry – nicknamed “Blue” for his sharply colored eyes – served on nuclear submarines for 10 years in the 1960s and 1970s. For years, he didn’t pay much attention to the Vietnam veterans movement. “But as I got older, I figured I needed to make a statement that these people did something important,” he said.
Mr. Curry, a technician for a Washington-area TV station, has participated in the parade five years now, and each time he has brought along his two children, now 7 and 9.
“I take them down to the Wall and explain as best I can what happened. I’m not sure they can understand, but someday my son might be in a similar position and I want him to know that people still care about the men who went over there,” he said.
The event can dredge up painful memories. But the bikers keep coming back.
“As long as I’m able to ride, I’m coming,” Mr. Garrett said.
Like the American troops in the Vietnam War, the riders come from a range of backgrounds, from lawyers to factory workers, black and white. They have little in common except their time in the armed forces.
Even the most basic divide among bikers – between Harley-Davidson riders and those who prefer foreign-made bikes by Honda or Suzuki – is bridged here.
“You’ve got people here who would never ride together under other circumstances,” Mr. Curry said. “And there’s no attitude at all. Everybody gets along. Everyone meditates on the message, and no one has any time for the nonsense.”
In the crowds that gather around Washington in the days and hours before the parade, it can be difficult to determine who is a veteran and who is not. By some estimates, most of those who participate in the weekend’s events are not veterans.
Some wear patches on their leather riding vests promoting the POW/MIA issue, but so do others who never served. And some people who were in the armed forces either served in other parts of the world or never saw combat.
But for Bob Zabik, a 57-year-old Navy veteran from Port Huron, Mich., it’s easy to tell the Vietnam veterans from the civilians.
“Just look at their faces,” he said. “You can see the emotions running through them.”
Joe Berger spent his 19th birthday on a plane to Vietnam. It was 1969, and his life was about to change radically.
He had enlisted in the Marine Corps because he thought it was his best chance of coming back alive. At first, he wanted to be a radio technician, but shortly after arriving, he was convinced to join an airborne unit as a paratrooper.
His job was to drop into enemy territory, do reconnaissance on the equipment and forces there, then be flown out, usually by helicopter. In all, he jumped 19 times and “everyone was like the first one,” he said.
It was dangerous work. His company lost 11 men. Only eight made it back alive. Miraculously, he was never injured.
When he came back, like many veterans, he had some trouble readjusting to civilian life. “You’re tense, your defenses are up. You don’t trust people. It takes a long time to get that out of your system. Actually, it never goes out of your system,” he said.
After coming back, he became a drill instructor as an outlet for his pent-up anger. But the anger is still there, and the anxiety. “I still can’t sit with my back to the door in a restaurant. I can’t stand to have somebody behind me.
“You think about Vietnam every day. It might be for five seconds, it might be for a couple of hours. You don’t have any control over it.”
Mr. Berger, now 50, acted out in a variety of ways, including spending some time in outlaw motorcycle gangs. But a few years ago, he decided that he wanted to confront his time in Vietnam. This is his third Rolling Thunder run.
It wasn’t until that first run two years ago that Mr. Berger saw the Wall. On Friday night, he attended a candlelight vigil there with hundreds of other veterans. He said it made him more emotional than ever. “I lost it,” he said. “It was like a funeral service.”
“When you look at that Wall, they’re looking right back at you, ” he said. “It’s almost like a mirror. When you touch it, it’s almost a transformation. You can feel something.”
It’s the same feeling that makes grown men who have never met hug each other at the Wall. “There’s something about being here that helps you open up,” Mr. Berger said.
But even at the vigil, his anger showed itself. A child – part of a school group visiting the Wall – said offhandedly, “Isn’t this cool?”
Mr. Berger said he yelled at the youth and asked him why he thought it was “cool.”
“‘These guys are dead, and you think it’s cool?’ You ask these kids what Memorial Day is, and you know what they tell you? It’s just a day off of school. That’s all.”
As much as he has gained from Rolling Thunder over the past few years, Mr. Berger is unsure if he will keep coming back every year. He is unhappy that there are more nonveterans than veterans participating, and he doesn’t like the atmosphere that surrounds the gathering.
As Vietnam veterans have grown older and more have become interested in revisiting their experiences, a cottage industry has sprung up to take advantage. Selling everything from T-shirts to stickers, and hats to earrings, vendors appear by the hundreds at events like this to hawk their wares.
That makes Mr. Berger angry. “It has become so commercialized it’s like Niagara Falls,” he said. Last year, he found a bracelet commemorating a helicopter pilot who had dropped him off on one of his missions and was killed shortly thereafter. “You think that guy’s family got the $20 they were charging? You think they saw anything out of it?”
For Toledo resident Garry Snyder, what he didn’t see in Vietnam is just as troubling as what he did.
Mr. Snyder spent a year on an air force base outside Saigon in a civil engineers unit. His job was to maintain equipment on the base, or, as he put it, “to bring light bulbs wherever somebody needed one.”
People in his position weren’t allowed to leave the base, and as a result, he saw relatively little of the enemy, other than the wounded North Vietnamese prisoners who were brought onto the base periodically.
“I had an excellent job. It was nothing compared to what the guys in the bush went through,” said Mr. Snyder, a machine attendant at a factory in Waterville. “I guess I was there, but I wasn’t there.”
But he saw the impact the war had on some of his friends. One, he said, “to this day isn’t right. He can’t keep a full-time job anywhere. We knew each other 15, 20 years before he even mentioned Vietnam to me.”
For years, Mr. Snyder had said he wanted to visit the Wall, but he had never made time to do so. Once, driving near Washington with his wife Evelyn, he had planned to stop to see it, but he drove right past the exit on the interstate.
“She said, ‘I thought you were gonna turn there to see the Wall.’ And I just said I had changed my mind. I didn’t want to think about it,” Mr. Snyder said.
Finally, after he became a Harley enthusiast two years ago – the Sylvania Harley Owners Group organized this trip – he decided that this would be the time to see the Wall. He and his wife made a very brief visit on Saturday. “We just ran through,” his wife said. “We didn’t look for names. We kept moving quickly.”
It was a moving experience, Mr. Snyder said. “You look at it and you start thinking of things, of guys that I know. It’s amazing what granite can do.”
But perhaps most moving was what they saw nearby. They spotted a middle-aged man, dressed in faded combat fatigues, standing a short distance away from the Wall. Clearly he wanted to get closer. But just as clearly, he could not summon the will power.
“He’d walk up, get close, and then change his mind,” Mrs. Snyder said. “Every once in a while, you’d see him get more confident, and he’d have a stronger walk. He’d get closer, but at the last minute, he’d veer right and walk away. You could almost hear him say, ‘Maybe next time.’
“I wanted to go up to him and say something to him,” Mr. Snyder said afterward. “I should have. I should have gone up to him and said ‘Welcome home,’ ask him where he served, and if he wanted to talk.”
Before the war, Mr. Ballinger was headed down a bad path in life. He was living on Toledo’s streets, camping out in people’s backyards until they’d invite him to stay inside for a few weeks. He was getting involved in burglaries and car thefts. “The cops knew who I was, and they were looking for me,” he said.
So, to lower the pressure from police, he signed up for a four-year stint with the Marines in 1968. He soon got a letter from a police officer saying that police would drop their investigations of him if he agreed not to return to Toledo until he was 21. Mr. Ballinger was fine with that.
He went to Vietnam and became a fire team leader. Twice, he was wounded. The first was in a mortar attack in which he moved several other soldiers to safety before being hit, leaving 42 pieces of shrapnel in his body. Within 30 days, he was back in the field, still bandaged. The second came from an attack on a fortification in which shrapnel hit his leg.
When Mr. Ballinger returned to Toledo as a 21-year-old, he brought Vietnam’s violence with him. Not long after returning, he threatened to kill his father unless he would get his son a job working at the Jeep plant. He also became an alcoholic. “I still had that anger,” he said. “My kids were scared of me. They didn’t know when I might snap.”
Whenever he thought about his days in Vietnam, his strongest feeling was guilt, he said. “I was a perfectionist,” he said. “So because I didn’t save everybody, I felt guilty for that.”
After years of tormenting himself and those around him, Mr. Ballinger began to think about how to end the cycle. He’s sought psychiatric help for his memories and his alcoholism.
But perhaps more importantly, he’s rethought how he evaluates his life.
“I can own up to the fact that I’m not perfect. You’ve got to accept that, and then you can forgive yourself. But not until then.”
Mr. Ballinger now believes he did all he could in Vietnam to save the men he lost. And he acknowledges that his actions saved several lives along the way.
It’s not a perfect situation, and Mr. Ballinger said he still feels guilty sometimes about the war. But he’s working on it.
“I survived,” he said. “I’m going to try to do whatever I’m meant to do.”
At events like this weekend’s, Mr. Ballinger tries to discuss his memories and experiences with other veterans to try to reconcile his past with his future. In some ways, it’s the central idea behind Rolling Thunder.
“The ones who are healing talk,” he said. “It helps me, and it helps them.”