It was a rainy day in mid summer 2003 and their spirits were high. A group of motorcycle riders were coming back from a long trip called “Bandera Run” to celebrate Memorial Day when one of them died in an auto accident near San Antonio.
They were part of a traveling club that rode motorcycles, mostly branded Harley Davidson. They had long hair, bore tattoos, wore black leather jackets, torn jeans, though some had a more conservative look.
It’s not a vestige of Hell’s Angels or the Mongols or an outlaw gang, but it’s brotherhood of blood, literally, but not in the family sense.
Most of them have faced military combat as part of the Army, the Navy or the Marines during the Vietnam War or the First Gulf War, among other less pronounced missions.
The death of their fellow rider is a reason for mourning, but the incident isn’t foreign to them since they have gone through similar situations in worse circumstances.
It was in those moments that they faced death while watching their fellow soldiers die in the battlefield.
“I was in the infamous conflict of Khe Sanh in January 1968 where just 6,000 of us were confronted with around 40,000 Viet Congs and the North for 77 days and it was a very hard experience,” said Eduardo "Satch" Sanchez, 60, who was hit by shrapnel and debris fragments in that ocassion.
It was a battle that was covered extensively by the media then and which President Lyndon Johnson followed closely along with the American people.
“The President had a map graph of our situation and was constantly updated the entire time the confrontation lasted,” said Sanchez.
The exchange of fire power was so intense that military planes couldn’t land to provide supplies and provisions or to rescue the wounded and recover the dead. The desperately needed items had to be dropped airborne, many of which were shot down by enemy fire.
The battle of Khe Sanh resulted in the death of more than 200 American soldiers, while the Vietnamese forces lost more than 10,000 troops.
Sanchez, one of the survivors of an ill-fated war, had the luck to continue life as a civilian and eventually enjoy retirement in Houston.
Sanchez remembered having lost "war brothers" during his experience in Vietnam, but he also cherished having around those who survived, especially four lifelong friends who still live in Houston.
“We enlisted at the same time, traveled together to Vietnam, got separated when we got there and found each other after we finished our service for our country,” Sanchez recalled of his fellow Marines, who keep in touch to this day.
“After spending three years in the military, I became a salesman for Baird’s, the bread company for 20 years and I also worked as a mailman for the U.S. Postal Service for 14 years,” said the Houstonian veteran.
One of seven children from Mexican parents, Sanchez was born in Mission in south Texas and was raised in the Space City since the third grade. He graduated from San Jacinto High School which closed down in the 80s and what is today the Houston Community College (HCC) central campus.
”I wanted to get away from the neighborhood because I was beginning to make wrong choices and I didn’t want to get in trouble,” said the veteran. “So my solution was to join the military and continue my education that way.”
The Hispanic young man went to Vietnam when he had barely turned 18 years old and was there for 13 months seeing combat basically from the first day. The rest of the time he was part of the Marines, he worked in the role of military police officer in Marine bases in California and North Carolina.
“My whole experience in the military brought me close to other soldiers who became my friends in arms, particularly those who shared the battlefield with me,” shared Sanchez.
The connection among them appears solid and strong like metal for there were instances some of them hadn’t spoken in nearly 20 years and got together as soon as they got in touch again.
“In 1987 I was part of this big parade for Vietnam veterans in Houston which also opened up some wounds in a cathartic way,” recalled Sanchez.
The event was televised and one of Sanchez’s children got him an interview with other local Marines.
“I was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for the service to my country,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez had been a motorcycle enthusiast since he was in high school when he had a Honda scooter and graduated to riding a Harley Davison in recent years. He’d mostly gotten around on two wheelers through life, and as a teenager he made it to work that way at a Mexican restaurant called “Spanish Village.” Because it was a bit far from home and his dad had gotten a little tired of driving him back and forth all of the time, he decided to take care of it himself and satisfy his craving for riding.
He did admit having to abandon his hobby during a period of his life.
“I had to get rid of my motorcycle during my first marriage in 1974 when my 2-year old daughter burned her hand for touching the exhaust and my wife at the time asked me to,” confessed Sanchez, who got divorced three years later.
Ten years went by and after remarrying and having a son, the veteran decided to get another motorcycle and each time he upgraded, it was a newer, bigger, faster and louder model.
“Even though I always loved riding, I was never the type to cruise around with other riders until I retired in the 90s and I joined the Marines Motorcycle Club,” said Sanchez.
The proud Marine admitted having had an accident once while trying to “pop a willy” long before joining the MMC and blamed it on “youth and stupidity.”
“It’s dangerous to do motorcycles and you almost have to have a 180 degree vision, but you can be safe if you follow the road rules proactively while paying attention to the drivers around you,” Sanchez advised to those curious about picking up the risky hobby.
Sanchez also shared his desire to ride his bike as a way of being truly free and appreciative of being alive today to enjoy the country he defended when duty called.
“Instead of being inside a sedan or a truck, I like riding my bike with my buddies and feel the wind in my face and hair and being able to breathe the air that flows through this land that represents freedom,” commented Sanchez with pride while mourning with honor the fallen troops in past and present wars.
Since joining the MMC in 1999, Sanchez has gone twice to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. to participate in the Rolling Thunder on Memorial Day. It’s an event attended by more than 200,000 former military riders who get together with family, friends and strangers to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers.
“It’s a huge event and I went with other riders in 2001 and 2002, but then I decided to attend similar events in other parts of the country,” said the Houstonian veteran.
That’s how his motorcycle club attended Bandera Run, the trip where one of their fellow riders died in an accident on the road a few years ago.
Red River in Nuevo Mexico is another riding caravan to honor Memorial Day which has been real popular for around 12 years.
“There’s Red River and Angel Fire also in New Mexico, which was started by a doctor and father of a soldier who died in Vietnam and has really taken off in recent years,” said Sanchez, who had the chance to meet the doctor months before he passed away in 2005.
In Texas, The MMC carry out its own riding experience called Lupus Run and support events by other motorcycle clubs, including charitable functions. En route to west Texas they also take up another popular caravan called Hill Country Run.
“Marine Motorcycle Club also takes part in parades on holidays like Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day, soldiers’ funerals and visits to military bases,” added Sanchez.
The addicting excitement about riding can be hard to shake off and recently the MMC had to convince one their members to retire who was already 78 years old.
“He was a Korean War veteran and we concluded that it wasn’t safe for our brother to keep riding on long trips,” said Sanchez, but admitted that sometimes the old veteran still joins them on shorter runs.