Do you love riding motorcycles? Are you current or past military? Are you current or past law enforcement? Do you have a charitable spirit? Then you might want to consider joining the Nam Knights. They are a motorcycle club that President of the Hudson Valley Chapter George Kelly called a group of Boy Scouts on motorcycles. Contrary to the name, the group is not just made up of Vietnam Veterans. Long – time member John Daly, said We’re not just Nam Vets. Any military who honorably served is welcome to join. If you had bad conduct or a bad discharge, NO.”
Just to understand the background of the reason the group formed, the Vietnam War ran from 1955 – 1975 and was not a bright spot in the history the United States. The American involvement was from 1965 – 1975 and unlike the enthusiasm which American involvement in World War 2 was met with, our involvement in Vietnam was met with violent protests across the country. It was the first war in American history in which people burned their draft cards and ran to Canada rather than go halfway around the world to Southeast Asia to fight a war they felt we had no business getting involved in and were morally against.
47,424 American soldiers perished in Vietnam. Many were held as Prisoners of War for years after the official hostilities had ended. They were tortured, beaten and forced to work as slave labor. The ones who returned, did not receive the same welcome home that those who had served in World War 2 got upon their return. These men were called baby killers and murderers, not heroes. They were ostracized by a lot of people.
George Dominici, group historian, being the elder statesman, explained the origins of the organization. “There is a brotherhood going. When we got back, they were calling us baby killers and all kinds of stuff. We got a bad rap. We got really bad news when we got back. If you’ve got a 16 year – old shooting at you, you’re going to shoot back. There is definitely a brotherhood. It’s a bonding that is like no other.”
He described how he deals with military people he meets in his travels. “I don’t know this guy, but if I meet him I’ll say that’s great. I’ll be standing at the airports, picking up people. I’ll see a guy who’s coming from Desert Storm and I’ll shake his hand and say, welcome home brother. The reason you say welcome home is because we never got that. I did our part and now you do your part.”
There was a lot of laughing and good natured ribbing going on among the members present at their monthly meeting on March 19 at Kennelley’s Grille House on Route 9W in Congers.
According to Kelly the group is made up of about 23 members in the Hudson Valley Chapter, locally. I’m in 15 years and some are in 20, Right George? (talking to Dominici 27 – year member)
The organization is involved in many activities, including fund raising and riding their bikes and is made up of veterans, military and law enforcement. There is a certain amount of patriots (people who are not military or law enforcement) that are involved in the chapter too. “We’re allowed a certain percentage per chapter. I think it’s 5 or 10% of the membership can be patriot.” Kelly reported.
What kind of people are involved in this organization? John Daly said, “People that believe in what we do and want to be a part of it. The original qualification when the club first formed back in 1989, was strictly Vietnam veterans and law enforcement. You had to be both a Vietnam Vet and in law enforcement. Then they had what they called family members. They were people who were neither veterans or law enforcement were allowed to be a part of the club so they changed that name. Being a Vietnam veteran and law enforcement motorcycle club, like the Vietnam Veterans of America, once that last veteran dies, shrugging his shoulders, Nam doesn’t mean anything. They allowed other law enforcement and military. In other words, non – Vietnam era or that time or any other military veteran and law enforcement could be separate.”
The reason for the member needing to be a Vietnam Veteran AND a part of law enforcement was because way back when the club was formed, there were other motorcycle clubs that didn’t want anyone who was in law enforcement within their ranks.”
Organizations say they are a “brotherhood” because of a common background. Many times, you find that the closeness associated with the term is not as solid as they would want you to believe it is.
In the case of the Nam Knights, this is a brotherhood in the truest sense of the meaning of the word. Daly commented, “When you’re a veteran, it’s like a brotherhood, everybody watches out for one another. When we came back, it was not in large units, like the first marine division, anything like that. They rotated us as individuals. I was there 68 – 69. Others were there 67 – 68.”
“It was a way to, since we were considered outcasts, for people to relate to each other, camaraderie, brotherhood and the love of motorcycles. Originally you had to have a Harley Davidson. Now we allow any American made motorcycle. The dragon on the back of the jackets is in the shape of Southeast Asia. The dragon is a symbol of power.”
Recording Secretary Tommy Letiza is a patriot. “I never served. I wasn’t in law enforcement. I joined because I love to ride motorcycles and these guys fit the bill. I’ve had really good experiences with the group. We’ve done a lot. We’ve raised a lot of money for a lot of people in need. We have a good time.”
Kelly told of how he became a member of the group. “We used to see Tommy at a lot of fund raisers. Every fund raiser we’d do we’d run into Tommy. We kept seeing him. We said, why don’t you just join us? Every time we go someplace, you’re there.” They kept trying to talk him into joining and after a while they succeeded.
One of the charitable activities they do every year is sponsoring a kid with Make A Wish. “The thing with make a wish, you actually have to sign a contract. We have to guarantee that we’re going to do the wish.” said Kelly. “It’s been tough with the COVID. Last year people actually backed out of their contracts with Make A Wish. They said it’s because they can’t do the fundraiser. We can’t do the party. We went through and we completed the contract with them. We couldn’t have one this year because of the virus.”
There have been questions about exactly how much money donated for a cause goes to the cause it was donated for. Vice President Tom Hovagim told about where the charitable donations of the Knights go to. “They go to the county. We physically see them get the check. We see the family. It’s not like we’re sending the check somewhere and we don’t know if it is going there. In this club, when we send something out, we get the satisfaction of knowing that they really got the money, that it went right into their hands.”
The stereotypical view of motorcycle groups is that they are more like criminal gangs than charitable organizations. Their appearance in small towns can illicit fear and apprehension. Kelly said that the Nam Knights are usually met with very respectful waves. A lot of people know that we are really Boy Scouts on motorcycles.”
Hovagim mentioned the gold star mothers and that Anywhere they go they never get a problem. “We’re not an outlaw club. The people know that. They see the military ribbons. They see the military patches. They see the police patches. They put two and two together that we are the good guys.”
Daly added that the motorcycle community as a whole, knows who they are and what they do and they think we are all Vietnam Vets.
How does one become a member of the Nam Knights? “Basically to become a member, some people come and ask. It’s word of mouth. George knew somebody and he knew Tommy. You know this guy and they rode with a different club and now they want to join us.” Daly said.
Even with the pandemic regulations still in place in a number of states, the Knights still have their normal annual functions. There’s a police memorial in May to honor any fallen member of the police who came from Rockland County. “We have our annual trip to DC which is on Memorial Day weekend to honor Vietnam Veterans and lost law enforcement. We do the watchfires. We do at least one Memorial Day Parade. This past year there were no parades. We went to 6 or 7 cemeteries where there were veterans.
They put flowers, went up to RCC, Stony Point plus a couple of different places and also participated in putting flags at all of the cemeteries and wreaths at Christmas time.
One event they used to go to was a Rolling Thunder Run in NYC every year. According to Kelly, some kids got stupid doing wheelies up the East Side Drive, so they stopped that. “Now we have one in Jersey every year. That goes down to the NJ Memorial down in the area of the PNC Arts center.”
The biggest motorcycle event in the United States is at Sturgis in South Dakota. “As a chapter, this groups went out in 2002.
Being up front and personal and present at the biggest event of something that you really love and getting a first -hand view of the experience is fascinating. Daly explained what it was like being at Sturgis for the 50th Anniversary in 1990. “There was probably close to ¾ million bikes. I met people from Austria, England, Germany, Australia, they shipped their bikes over so they could ride for the 50th anniversary. When you leave Mount Rushmore, at the bottom, there’s a town called Keystone. They were parked double in the center and on each side. You couldn’t move. That was just Keystone. That’s the big party. Sturgis, that’s further away.”
Groups do recruitment to increase their membership. For the Hudson Valley Nam Knights according to Kelly, “It’s kind of like Florida. It kind of evens off. Guys die every year and guys join every year.”
Daly added, “It kind of plateaus but there’s new guys wanting to come in. The problem that we have as a club is the word Nam. The younger guys who are in law enforcement don’t want to hang out with the older guys. Or they don’t know that it’s not all Nam Veterans. I think a lot of people think that they can’t join because their not Nam Veterans. They don’t know.”
“The organization began in 1989 in NJ. Parent chapter is based out of Carlsbad NJ. They originally met in a VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) before we got our first club house.
“In 1989, the father of a man named Richie Gibson, was trying to get us (Tommy and me) to join. We were in the Wild Pigs. We weren’t in Vietnam. How are we going to join the Nam Knights? They explained to us that they allow law enforcement to come in. Prior military or law enforcement.”
An additional part of the camaraderie among Vietnam Vets are the Cross Border Runs with the Canadian Vietnam Vets. “We usually do the Cross Border Runs, but it has been cancelled the past two years because of this nonsense. They always come down to our events. They come to rolling thunder in DC. They come to our parties and stuff like that.” Daly exclaimed.
“All of the guys who show up have salt on their bikes from the winter. There was one guy in a wheelchair. He came down on his bike with the wheelchair in a trailer behind him. His bike had salt and he was in a complete snow mobile suit from Canada.” Kelly stated.
The Nam Knights are running a charity raffle. Tickets cost $100 and the top prize is $10,000. The drawing will take place on June 18.
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