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VFW Magazine February 2018 : Page 37

PHOTO BY DOUG LENTZ PHOTO BY JASON KEWLEY Visually impaired veterans, known as “Tailgunners,” enjoy the thrill of the open road courtesy of their “Pilots” during the second annual VIPER ride in August 2017 in Wisconsin. The event gives blind and low-vision veterans the opportunity to experience a day of motorcycling, socializing, food and entertainment, which anecdotal evidence suggests helps stave off depression associated with vision loss. World War II veteran James Widmer receives assistance with his motorcycle helmet from VIPER Groundcrew volunteer Dawn Troyer prior to the 2017 VIPER ride in Wisconsin. Widmer, 91, who served with the 77th Infantry Division on Okinawa during the war, was recognized as the oldest Tailgunner at the second annual event, which began at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee and covered more than 100 miles. rural East Troy, Wis., about 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee. While there, the riders and crew enjoyed food, fellowship and live music. Scores of people, including Boy, Girl and Cub Scouts, lined the road and parking lot clapping and cheering the rid-ers into their rest and food stop. At lunch, one of the vets gave a grin and related his favorite part of the ride — the undulating sensation of going up and down “waves” of hills and valleys. Donald Simms, of VFW Post 2923, in Milwaukee, Wis., served two tours of duty as a Marine in Vietnam. He spoke slowly and carefully about his experiences, both in Vietnam and on the VIPER ride. “I got some shrapnel in my stom-ach,” he answered when asked if he was wounded in service. “But I saw guys dying and losing limbs and such on Hill 54. Mine was just a scratch compared. I never reported it.” Then his face lit up as he said, “I’m amazed at how nice everyone is here, at all the attention being paid to us. We’re being treated like such special people.” Indeed, everyone present gave con-stant attention to all the vets, both while they were on cycles and on the ground. BIG PLANS FOR 2018 Glenn Rapanos attended the 2017 VIPER ride as a first-time Pilot. As a sailor, he served aboard the USS Shasta from November 1990 to June 1991 in the Persian Gulf as part of the USS Ranger battle group. Rapanos first heard of the VIPER ride at VFW Post 4308 in Lake Villa, Ill., where he is a life member. He works at Naval Station Great Lakes and volunteered for the ride with three of his buddies from the 2nd Brigade motorcycle group. Before this year’s ride, Rapanos’ Tail-gunner had requested a “comfortable” motorcycle. The 6-foot-4-inch Rapanos accommodated his guest with what he calls a “full-bagger” bike. “The only thing my Tailgunner is miss-ing is the remote control for the TV,” Rapanos joked. A veteran of many motorcycle runs, he spoke glowingly of his experience on the VIPER ride. Rapanos said it’s the first time he’s been a part of a ride that had a practice run for the drivers in the weeks beforehand. To avoid any potential problems during the actual run, Oman said he and his crew worked tirelessly for a full year prior to the ride to make that seamlessness happen. After two consecutive, successful events and passionate participant feed-back, the VIPER team is planning to expand the 2018 ride. They want to include veterans with other disabilities — such as traumatic brain injuries and amputations — who are physically unable to ride a motorcycle. Oman also is in dis-cussions to expand the VIPER ride to other parts of the country. At the 2017 ride, James Widmer, 91, an Army vet of the 77th Infantry Division who said he spent time on Okinawa in WWII, was recognized as the oldest Tail-gunner. Army vet Mike Kanitsch traveled the farthest to get to the event. He rode a Greyhound bus for 43 hours from Mesa, Ariz., to be part of it. At the midway lunch, Rapanos talked about his gratitude for everything being done for vets through the VIPER ride. Then, scanning across his fellow veter-ans as the live music revved up, he added, “We’re veterans 365 days out of the year, not just Veterans Day and Memorial Day. We’re veterans every day of our lives.” J EMAIL Marcella Jones is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee. FEBRUARY 2018   • WWW.VFW.ORG • 37

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