NITRO, W.Va. — Vietnam War veteran Dan Eckstein remembers how soldiers were treated when they returned to the United States after combat; he said service members were spat upon and harassed when they came back home.
“Mine was mostly just dirty looks. Nobody really wants to talk to you. You tended to just get out of uniform so people don’t even know you were serving,” he said.
“There’s such a shock from Vietnam to coming home, which happens over 14 hours. You’re going from war zone to home in 14 hours. It’s an incredible change.”
That was not the same reaction the retired Navy petty officer second class and more than 500 fellow riders received Wednesday when they drove through Nitro. Residents stood alongside 1st Avenue cheering and holding American flags as the group entered the city.
The riders are part of Ride for the Wall, an annual trip from Ontario, California, to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. in recognition of service members. The trip began on May 16.
Eckstein serves as a photographer for the organization’s Central Route team. He was taking pictures of bikers during a public ceremony at Nitro’s Living Memorial Park recognizing the trip.
“They hug us, they love us. That’s what this is all about. The public made a big mistake and they are correcting it now,” he said. “I always say because of what we went through, the way we were treated is the reason soldiers today are welcomed home.”
This year marks the 30th edition of the ride and the second time the motorcyclists have stopped in Nitro. The group previously stopped at Valley Park in Hurricane, which has been under construction for the last two years.
“We have a very patriotic state,” said Steve McGrath, member of Star Touring and Riding Chapter 197. “We all know the sacrifices these folks gave to let us have the freedoms we have today.”
Nitro Mayor Dave Casebolt said it was an honor for the riders to stop in the city.
“It was pretty amazing walking down the sidewalk,” he said. “I had several people tell me this is their favorite event of the year and this means more to the city of Nitro than anything else we do.”
Casebolt read a proclamation at the ceremony stating the POW/MIA flag will permanently fly at the Living Memorial Park. The flag honors individuals who were prisoners of war or went missing during combat.
The event’s stop in Nitro is fitting; the city was founded in World War I for the purpose of constructing a gunpowder production facility.
“Nothing emphasizes more than what we’re trying to proclaim as the city of Nitro that we are a living memorial to World War I than having 500 riders from all over the country come into our town,” Casebolt said.
Eckstein said Vietnam War veterans use the ride as a healing tool, allowing them to stop at the respective memorial to honor their fellow soldiers.
“Most Vietnam guys can’t even make it the first time,” he said. “When my wife rode with me as my assistant platoon leader, we both literally grabbed guys by the arm and took them there and let them experience coming back to meet with their brother. Some of them just collapse right there at the wall, but it’s a major part of healing to deal with that.”
The healing process, Eckstein added, is also extended to veterans of the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq; there is not a memorial in Washington recognizing service members who have lost their lives.
“Almost every soldier will bring back their demons with them,” he said. “In Vietnam particularly because of the way we were treated when we came home, what we see now is the parade we never got. And they see it all across the country. It helps.”
The riders will stop at the West Virginia Veterans Memorial at the state Capitol on Thursday before continuing their ride to the nation’s capital. The organization plans to arrive in Washington on Friday.