Legion Riders help soldiers dealt a lousy hand

The Enterprise —Melissa Hale-Spencer

Smiles all around: Organizers of the inaugural American Legion Riders’ Poker Run pose on Al Gaige’s Harley Davidson. Seated behind Gaige on the bike is Helen Wager. Standing behind them are, from left, Steve Oliver, and Gaige’s brother, Jim.

The Enterprise —Melissa Hale-Spencer

Pointing to the bottom line: Al Gaige and Helen Wager look over the list of contributors to Saturday’s Poker Run. All proceeds will go to the Wounded Warriors Project. Over $3,000 has been contributed so far, not counting the $20-per-person entry fee. Over 20 corporate sponsors, all local business, have contributed $150 each or more.

The Enterprise —Melissa Hale-Spencer

The hardest thing about being in military service wasn’t the heat and dirt of Iran, said Jim Gaige, a retired Seabee, a member of the Navy’s Construction Battalion. It was having to retire. “I love the people,” he said. He now enjoys being a member of the American Legion Riders and is helping to organize Saturday’s Poker run to raise funds for the Wounded Warriors Project.

The Enterprise —Melissa Hale-Spencr

Playing the game: Al Gaige describes how motorcyclists on Saturday will ride to five different venues, picking a playing card at each. When they return to the American Legion Hall in Altamont, they’ll enjoy a chicken and pulled-pork barbecue, and those with the top three hands will win prizes. Anyone who wants to be part of the fund-raising and party, but not ride a motorcycle, can pay $20 at the Legion Hall, be dealt a hand of cards, and enjoy the food and camaraderie.

ALTAMONT — It’s not about poker although it’s called a Poker Run.

It’s not even about motorcycles, although those participating in Saturday’s fund-raiser will ride to five different venues to collect a hand of playing cards.

Really, it’s about brotherhood and helping those who need it.

All the funds raised Saturday, every last penny, will go to the Wounded Warriors Project.  That not-for-profit group has the motto, “The greatest casualty is being forgotten.”

The members of the American Legion Riders aren’t forgetting. The group of 13 formed a little over a year ago and now is over 30 strong. Saturday’s Poker Run will be the first of what they hope will become an annual event.

Some of the organizers met on Monday to look over the list of 60 contributors — more than $3,000 has already been raised — and to hash out final details.

Jim Gaige, an original member of the Legion Riders, served in the Army from 1972 to 1975 and later joined the Seabees (that is, the Construction Battalion — CB) in the Navy Reserves. After two tours in Iraq, he retired with 26 years of service.

“It was hot and dirty,” Gaige said of Iraq. “We had a job to do. We did our job.”

The hardest part for him was leaving. “I love the people,” said Gaige, who is 61.

Gaige says he’s a patriot. When someone asked him why he had a flagpole in his yard, he asked, “Why don’t you have one in your yard?”

“I come from a flag-waving family,” he said. “Guilderland has so many diverse people. One common thread is that red, white, and blue.”

Steve Oliver, another founding member of the American Legion Riders, was in the Navy Seabees for a total of 10 years. He joined in 1980 and was out in 1987. But, in the 1990s, when the United States led a United Nations coalition to free Kuwait from Iraqi troops (the Gulf War codenamed Operation Desert Storm), Oliver signed up again.

“During the Cold War, we were in a place for eight months or a year. We got to know the people,” he said, mentioning among the places he was stationed, the Philippines and Sigonella, Sicily.

“When Desert Storm started, I signed up with the local reserves,” Oliver said. “All my buddies were going…You can take the uniform off, but it’s there for life,” he said of the commitment.

The Wounded Warriors Project has touched a chord with contributors, the men said. For them, it’s personal. They’d like to raise consciousness as well as funds.

“I’m a disabled vet,” said Oliver. He wears aids to help him hear and he gets rashes from substances he was exposed to in the Philippines.

Oliver went to the Stratton Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albany to apply for benefits and vividly recalls the elevator ride.  “One guy was in a wheelchair and another was missing an arm,” he said. “I left and didn’t come back for 18 years. I didn’t feel I deserved it. A lot of guys won’t go because they have the same feelings I had.”

“One of the kids in my charge got hurt,” said Jim Gaige. As a Seabee, he was on a construction site in Iraq — Gaige said he wasn’t allowed to tell what he was working on  but said it was in an area of hostile fire.

He was flown to Germany for reconstructive surgery on his face. “He’s doing very well,” said Gaige who kept in touch with him.

He also said, “I don’t know how to put this stuff into words.”

His friend, Oliver, helped him out by recalling a slogan from a T-shirt: “If I have to explain it, you won’t understand it.”

“Like family”

Five generations of the Gaiges have been in the Altamont American Legion. Three generations of the Olivers belonged.

“It’s like family,” said Al Gaige, who is a member of Sons of The American Legion.

Some of the wounds that aren’t physical are the hardest to deal with.

“I know a lot of fellows that have problems,” said Jim Gaige. Those who served during the era of the Vietnam War, like he did, often felt reviled, said Gaige.

“Guys that were drafted, they did their job and, when they came home, there was no flag-waving,” he said.

He contrasted the greeting he got coming home from Iraq in 2011 with the one he got in 1973, returning to Albany on leave.

In 2011, he said, “I expected to get off the plane, get in my car, and go home.” Instead, Helen Wager had arranged an “amazing” reception he said, with his family and others there to greet him at the airport.

In 1973, by contrast, the person who was to pick him up didn’t get to the airport and Gaige was walking home. As he walked past the Quaker cemetery — “you wore your dress greens then” —kids in a red Mustang drove by.

“They threw soda and spit at me,” he recalled.

“The Vietnam veterans don’t want that to happen to this generation of warriors,” said Oliver. “They’ve been a real driving force…The country’s in a different mindset.”

Jim Gaige also recalled, in 2002, a couple in a New Orleans bar picking up the tab for him and his buddies. The woman said their son had enlisted in the Air Force and others had been kind to him.

Gaige also recalled flying from Guam to Puerto Rico. “I was the senior enlisted,” he said, remembering the scene at the airport in Hawaii. “I got called to the desk. I thought we were getting bumped.”

Instead, the staffer behind the counter said, “You guys are flying first class all the way to Puerto Rico.”

Gaige said, with wonder in his voice, “I’ve never flown first class, before or since…They gave us ice-cream sundaes at 1 a.m., and hot towels, and eye shades, and slippers.”

He concluded, “That is the difference between now and then. People are appreciative.”

How to help

“Wounded Warriors helps with rehabilitation, both mentally and physically,” said Gaige.

Oliver described a climbing program that lets wounded veterans pursue mountaineering.  “They let you know your life’s not over; it’s just different,” he said.

“We’re not doing this for ourselves,” said Jim Gaige of the Poker Run. “The intent is to write the biggest check we can.”

“We want to support our brothers and their families,” said Oliver.

Those who sign up — packets are available from 4 to 9 p.m. at the American Legion Hall on Altamont Boulevard — will travel to five different venues. Bikers will register between 10 and 11:45 a.m. on Aug. 24 at the American Legion Hall in Voorheesville.

“We’ll leave at 12 sharp,” said Jim Gaige. The bikers will travel together; it’s not a race.

The next stop is the Brass Rail Tavern in Rensselaerville. The third stop is the American Tavern in Cobleskill; the fourth is the Esperance Elks Club.

The tour concludes at the American Legion Hall. The riders will turn in their sheets that show the hands — of five cards — they’ve been dealt. The rider with the best hand gets $300; second place garners $150, and third place, $100.

Each venue supplies donated food so there is no expense to the riders beyond the initial $20 registration fee.

The bikers will arrive at the Legion Hall between 4 and 4:30 p.m., with flags flying, said Oliver, for a chicken and pulled-pork barbecue.

Anyone who wants to be part of the fund-raising and party, but not ride a motorcycle, can pay $20 at the Legion Hall, be dealt a hand of cards, and enjoy the food and camaraderie.

The American Legion will also host auctions on Saturday as part of the fund-raising festivities.

Wager’s contributions

“In the military,” said Helen Wager, who volunteers weekly at the Albany airport’s courtesy room for traveling soldiers, “people are torn down and rebuilt to be fighting machines. You don’t get the same person back. You have to be different to survive.”

She and her family have volunteered to cook for the finale of this Saturday’s poker run. “I feel enough is not given back to these people who sacrifice so much,” she said.

She also said of her volunteer work at the courtesy room, “I see the heartbreak.”

Wager sees herself as a trouble-shooter. That is what she did for Verizon Communications Inc. before she retired. Now, she is a licensed massage therapist where she troubleshoots bodily ills.

Not all troubles can be solved for military personnel passing through Albany’s airport. “I’ve seen people sending their son off and not knowing if he’s coming back,” she said.

Wager recalled a woman, nine months pregnant “due any minute,” trying to find out when her husband would be back from Afghanistan.

She also recalled some happy times, like a couple getting married in the military courtesy room. Or the 19-year-old girl from Texas “with everything she owned in her suitcase, and no money” trying to get to Fort Drum to marry her soldier sweetheart.

Her flight was held overnight, and she had just $40 to her name, recalled Wager. “I called John McKenna,” she said.

John J. McKenna III founded the courtesy room to honor his son, Captain John J. McKenna IV, a Marine Corps platoon commander, from Clifton Park, who was killed in Iraq on Aug. 16, 2006. He was 30.

“She’s not military, but she’s stranded,” Wager told McKenna of the 19-year-old bride-to-be. “We put her in a hotel for the night.”  The next morning, she was on her way to Fort Drum.

Love of the road

When asked why they liked to ride motorcycles, the men again quoted the T-shirt slogan: If I have to explain it, you won’t understand it.

“They run together,” said Oliver of serving in the military and riding with the Legion members. “It’s a family.”

As Guilderland’s highway superintendent, Oliver went on, “I work in an office all day. I deal with the public all day.”

He contrasted this with being on the open road, likening it to his Knox youth when he rode horses.

“You have to pay attention when you drive a motorcycle,” said Oliver.  “You have to be aware of your surroundings. You see things differently.”

“I ride for the pure enjoyment,” said Jim Gaige. He remembered a ride where he could smell the new-mown hay.

“If you pass a motorcycle going the other way, they wave to you,” said Al Gaige.

He also said, “As much as I love my family, I go motorcycling with my buddies for a few days each year. It’s not for the party part. I don’t drink,” he said; it’s purely for the camaraderie.

“Not all bikers are troublemakers,” stressed Al Gaige, who has retired from a career with the state, where he worked on payroll for the Department of Corrections and the State Comptroller. “Bikers get a bad reputation.”

The Legion Riders’ oldest member, Bud Monroe, is in his 80s.

“He rides a trike,” said Al Gaige, referencing a motorcycle with two back wheels.

“Since he started keeping a log,” said Oliver. “He has over 250,000 miles. He’s our hero.”

With the new technology, communicating over Facebook, for example, Oliver said, “I’ve gotten in touch with so many buddies from 26 years ago.”

“The first week Helen posted the Poker Run on Facebook, it went viral,” said Jim Gaige. “I got an e-mail from a buddy in Afghanistan that said, ‘Hey, Bro, I’d be there but I’m here.’”

“We’re going to be ready to feed 300 people,” said Wager.

“This has been a crash course,” concluded Oliver of planning the group’s first-ever Poker Run.

“We never lost the faith,” said Jim Gaige.

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