Ridership group another avenue to give back

He remembers arriving home not to receive praise, but scorn. After returning home from serving in the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment during the Vietnam War, Port Orchard’s Michael Licari heard the hecklers. The ones that referred to him and fellow veterans as “baby killers” and spat on them.
Licari, who served from 1967-68 and 1970-71, said he seeks a more positive experience for veterans when they return. That is one reason why he joined Veterans of Foreign War Fred Needham Post 2669’s “rider” chapter.
Post commander John Weatherill said Port Orchard’s Post is one of only three with riderships in the state. The others are on Whidbey Island and Redmond. In June, the three groups will converge in North Bend to travel together to the state’s VFW convention in Yakima. The ridership — not biker — group is about more than camaraderie, though.
Weatherill, who was a patrolman from 1980-91 for the Bremerton Police Department, is weary of any connotation toward gangs when he drives around his blue 2006 Harley-Davidson Electric Glide motorcycle. The patch on his black leather vest reads “LAWMAN” and he is clear the group’s only work is geared toward assisting veterans.
They provided the motorcycle escort last September from Silverdale to place two steel beams from the World Trade Center as the centerpiece of a 9/11 memorial slated for Bremerton’s Evergreen Rotary Park.
He often can be found riding his Harley through Port Orchard en route to his latest civic endeavor.
Weatherill worked with the late Joseph Hovey and his brother to construct a 1,200-brick Veterans Wall of Honor, which is 28-feet long and about six feet high, at Marina Park along the Port Orchard waterfront. The project, which was finished a year ago, was successful enough that Weatherill planned a new, single-faced wall with 508 bricks behind the original wall.
Weatherill, 66, and Licari, 64, said they are more active than most of their fellow riders because they are retired. The ridership group, which runs through VFW, is trying to raise money during a time when the organization’s membership is declining.
George “Corky” Berthiaume, who is the VFW’s office manager for Washington state daily activities and a member of the national council of administration for our state, Idaho and Montana, said last year that local posts have fared better than most. The VFW has 29,000 members statewide, which is about a 15 percent decline during the last decade. Berthiaume said many states have seen 40 to 50 percent declines.
That has not meant a reduction in demand for services, though. Licari said the aftermath of the Great Recession has left many veterans in need. When Licari climbs onto his red 2005 Kawasaki toward Post 2669, his aim is to do much more than have a good time.
“A lot of people think all we do is come in and drink,” he said. “That’s not the case. We are out there pushing the streets to help veterans. A lot of these veterans don’t have anything.”
To help combat that, Licari, Weatherill and others went to local merchants and asked them for donations as they began planning for their first bowling tournament to benefit needy veterans in 2011 at Port Orchard’s Hi-Joy Bowl. The second tournament was held in November and Weatherill said they plan for it to be an annual event.
Hi-Joy Bowl owners Don and Mickie Hoem allowed the VFW to keep the $15 charge per person from the tournament. While only 30 people participated in the event, Weatherill said enough money was raised for the VFW to donate $4,000 in Safeway food and gas gift cards to needy veterans.
“The community came together,” he said, adding that the VFW recently held a dinner to thank the donors. “It’s a really good feeling.”
While members of Post 2669, which was established in 1932, will help “any veteran that walks through the door,” they do verify that the individual actually needs assistance.
“We don’t just dish out money,” he said.
The ridership’s reach extends to individuals in need of assistance. Weatherill said one veteran was seriously injured in an accident on Mile Hill Drive in Port Orchard. The group went to his house, constructed a ramp and donated an electric wheelchair.
For Licari and Weatherill, the ridership is just another way to stay involved with assisting veterans.
Weatherill retired on disability after he fractured five vertebrae in his back when he went off a rock wall while chasing a suspect on Kitsap Way. Even when he is on his Harley, Weatherill looks for ways to help his peers, who range from 30 to 69 years old. Whenever the ridership is together, he stays on the tail to ensure that “if someone pulls off, they don’t get left behind.”
Similar to Weatherill, Licari is grateful that he has another opportunity to ride. He drove a motorcycle for the first time when he was 16 years old and wanted to join Post 2669’s group because of “the work they do.” A patch on his black leather vests reads “ZIP.”
“They gave me this name because I’ve been cut open so many times,” said Licari, referring to heart surgery.
The wounds for Licari often go beyond surgical incisions. Similar to other veterans, Licari has suffered through years of nightmares — the after affects of war and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said he is grateful to his wife, psychologist, the ridership and VFW for their help.
“This is the best I’ve been,” Licari said. “I come in here and I get everything out. I’ve paid my dues and I want others to understand there is help.”
Weatherill agreed.
“A veteran can understand where a veteran has been,” he said. “You ain’t gonna embarrass us with what you have to say. We just sit down and talk. It’s a healing process.”