By Angeljean Chiaramida STAFF WRITER
Newburyport Daily News
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The men and women of two locally based motorcycle groups don’t ride their bikes merely to enjoy the open road.
They ride to assist others who have kept this country safe during times of combat.
Fred Hardy of Rowley, president of the New England Chapter of Patriot Riders, said his organization seeks out and helps veterans in need through difficult times.
For Newburyport’s Frank Peluso, secretary of Rolling Thunder Chapter 1, the focus is on reminding people of the 92,000 military men and women still unaccounted for since World War I.
That somber fact will be highlighted all year at Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots organization has dedicated a chair that will remain empty in honor of those who are still listed as missing in action or prisoners of war.
The empty chair was commemorated by Patriots owner Robert Kraft during a ceremony at the stadium on Nov. 9. Rolling Thunder’s message then was broadcast nationwide during the Patriots’ nationally televised game on Sunday, which coincided with Veterans Day.
“We were there for the ceremony,” Peluso said. “Mr. Kraft was at the dedication. I swear I saw a tear in his eye. He was very touched by the whole thing.”
Peluso said Rolling Thunder next hopes to place similar MIA/POW tributes at Fenway Park and TD Garden as well as at some local restaurants, so patrons will remember the forgotten.
Rolling Thunder was founded in 1987 by Ray Manzo and Artie Muller because they believed the government wasn’t doing enough about MIAs and POWs, said Peluso, who served state-side in the Army Corps of Engineers Reserves from 1966 to 1972. Rolling Thunder’s first event was a ride that year in Washington, D.C., and there’s been a ride every year since to continue bringing attention to those still missing.
“This year, we had the biggest one-day parade ever,” Peluso said. “There were 500,000 bikers. We left the Pentagon, rode past the White House and ended up at the Reflecting Pool.”
The idea of the empty seat at Gillette Stadium grew out of an earlier gesture of keeping a place setting at a table empty to mark the unknown status of MIAs and POWs, Peluso said. Sometimes a pair of military boots are added to the display.
The local Rolling Thunder chapter has other commemorative tableaux in place, including an empty seat at Sal’s Restaurant in Lawrence and at the Lowell Spinners’ LaLacheur Park.
“These are to remind people, they’re for awareness,” Peluso said. “When people see the empty seat and they read the plaques, they remember. In Massachusetts alone, there are still 39 men missing from the Vietnam War. We wear that on our shirts. It says, `We will never forget.’”
Peluso and Hardy were among the original eight who founded the Patriot Riders New England chapter in 2004. They continue to work together to support each other’s goals.
“Most members of Patriot Riders were military, but you don’t have to be a member of the military to join,” said Hardy, a Coast Guard veteran who served in Vietnam in the 1960s on the cutter Dwayne.
The mission of the Patriot Riders is to help veterans experiencing hard times, such as a serious illness or suffering during the holidays, he said. For instance, the chapter has assisted a military family who just welcomed twins after it learned through the Gloucester veterans agent that one of the babies was ill.
“We sat down to discuss it all and we decided to help,” Hardy said. “We provided some money to help them with their bills.”
The baby has since undergone numerous surgeries in a Boston hospital and the child’s future is looking good, Hardy said.
Patriot Riders also seek out veterans who aren’t doing well at the holidays and step in with a letter and check. One veteran who was helped by the group in the past reported the check had turned the holidays around for him. He was able to pay a bill or two, buy some food and even invited a friend over to share Christmas dinner.
The group is typically called by veterans agents in the region who know someone in need, but they also get tips from others, Hardy said. The group investigates each situation on its own merits and then acts appropriately, he said.
“If anyone knows of a veteran who needs help at Christmas time, they should give us a call,” Hardy said.
Want to Help?
Rolling Thunder and Patriot Riders raise money for their causes by holding motorcycles rides annually in which participants pay an entrance fee or gather sponsors. The rides can include raffles and other fundraising activities.
For more information on Rolling Thunder, Massachusetts Chapter 1, visit www.rollingthunderma1.org or call Frank Peluso at 508-265-7894.
For more information on Patriot Rider New England, visit www.patriotriders-ne.com or call Fred Hardy at 978-500-2677.