SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. — Roger Lanphier, a 70-year-old biker in black-leather chaps, hurtles on his Harley past a craggy red mesa north of the Jemez River, chasing his past into his future.
The Vietnam veteran, stationed in Da Nang during the late 1960s, now lives in Parker, Colo., on a 5-acre spread with his wife and his horses. Each year, just before Memorial Day, he leaves his ordinary life to join a grizzled posse of biker-veterans called Patriots-Warriors on their cross-country journey to Washington, D.C.
Riding Fatboys and Sportsters, they work to heal their inner wounds by conducting ceremonies to honor the dead. The will end up at the National Mall in Washington for a Memorial Day rally with Rolling Thunder, a network of veterans on motorcycles.
This year they gathered in Clifton, Ariz. — a little mining town that had more soldiers per capita killed in Vietnam than any other town in the United States — and traveled for days, picking up riders along the way.
Through Texas and Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia, they rode into headwinds and through rainstorms, stopping for ceremonies at public monuments and private homes.
Most still suffer psychic wounds from Vietnam. The best balm, they've discovered, is to comfort the newly bereaved.
"There is a sense of true loyalty, pain, agony and grief," Lanphier said.
"We try, with empathy, to console. We honor the dead, we honor the missing,
Josie Kakar-Delsi, the wife of a Vietnam vet, organized the journey and drives the support vehicle. She researched the deaths of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to include stops for prayer on the route.
No place is too small, not even gas stations like the Biscuit Hill Texaco in Shawnee, Okla., where the bikers stood in a circle while their chaplain — leather-clad Vietnam vet Stephen Guzzo — lifted his hands in prayer for a soldier born nearby — Ross Pennanen, killed when his CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down en route to Baghdad.
Now in Bernalillo, N.M., engines roaring, the bikers throttle down and turn hard left into a narrow lane that twists into the ancient home of the Santa Ana Pueblo people, toward the house of Emilian Sanchez, a 20-year-old Marine killed in Iraq last year. He'd been there just two months.
The dirt lane is lined with flags.
The entire pueblo is waiting outside: the parents of the fallen warrior, his siblings and cousins and friends, even the governor of the pueblo.
The bikers kill their engines.
In the silence, there is only the sound of flags, flapping in the springtime breeze.
Lanphier steels himself for the ceremony. The emotions evoke memories of other times, his buddies killed in battle, shot in the neck on patrol, or leaning out a helicopter.
He stands — hands crossed, head bowed — as the tribal governor prays in the native tongue, Keres, where only three words are in English: Marine, Army, Navy.
The air is fragrant with bread, 30 loaves baked that morning in the wood-burning kiva oven for the memorial feast that will follow: platters of beef and roast chicken, spicy casseroles, potato salad, a sheet cake frosted with the American flag.
"You paid a very big price in pursuit of freedom — you sacrificed your son," Robert Delsi tells the gray-haired parents.
He is a barrel-chested ex-Marine with a staccato laugh, a Mescalero Apache who received the Purple Heart after he was shot in both legs during an ambush by the North Vietnamese Army.
These ceremonies greatly affect men like Delsi.
"Our working to honor the dead helps his healing," said his wife. "He's more calm and at peace. He knows he's not the only one suffering."
The honors are bestowed. The tears are shed.
The gang of vets and their friends — Yank and Boomer and Haywire, Mustang and Mississippi Mud — line up to embrace the family, whispering words of encouragement.
"It's just a blessing that he's being remembered," says Jennie Sanchez of her son, buried at the bottom of a nearby mesa.
It's late afternoon by the time the bikers ride out.
The sky is a soft pearl gray. The landscape transforms slowly, from adobe homes to farmhouses and ranches. They roar past grain silos and grazing cattle, the Happy Tracks Horse Motel and the Camelot Inn and the Kwahada Museum of the American Indian, past isolated farm houses amid yellow-gold fields, fringed with green, the same shimmer as the rice paddies of Vietnam.
A Navajo woman named Effelita George has joined them, meeting up at the Friday night dinner in Cuba, N.M., a town where 80 percent of the citizens are veterans.
She belongs to an elite group no one wants to join: The Gold Star Mothers Club, a national organization of mothers who've lost a child in war.
Her son, Kevin Joyce, was killed in 2005 during a battle in Afghanistan when he fell into the Pech River and was swept away. He was born on Memorial Day, 1982.
His mother travels with two scrapbooks packed with memories of her son's life. There is a list, written on a small scrap of notebook paper, that the 19-year-old Marine had titled "Things to Do in Life."
They included the large and the small: Go to college. Take kick-boxing. Finish military. Have an adventure. Get closer to Christ. Get married. Make the best of life, being positive.
Riding with George in the navy-blue SUV is her daughter, Michelle, 20, who will leave for basic training with the Marines in August.
George does not want to lose another child to war, but Michelle is adamant.
"I remember when we were kids, my brother Kevin telling me he wanted to join," she said. "We were 6 and 7. Ever since he told me, I wanted to go too."
George chooses to focus on the positive.
"This is a healing process for me," she says of this journey, where she accompanies the bikers in honor ceremonies for other parents. "I can say something to people, because I know what they are going through."