By Stefanie Donahue
Leather laden motorcyclists from Birch Bay’s American Legion Peace Arch Post 86 are rolling into their fourth year as Legion Riders since founding the group in 2012. Since then, the riders have led hundreds of rides throughout Whatcom County to honor veterans, their families and the fallen.
About a dozen self-proclaimed motorcycle enthusiasts comprise the local chapter, which is part of an estimated 106,000 Legion Riders in more than 1,000 chapters throughout the globe.
Rider groups are formed under the American Legion, which is the largest organization dedicated to serving wartime veterans. Founded in 1919, it has more than 2.4 million members and an approximate 14,000 posts.
Legion Riders must be members of the American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary or Sons of the American Legion to join. Once admitted, riders often escort members of the armed services home after war and have also been known to provide support during funeral services for the fallen. Riders are also credited with raising millions of dollars for charities each year.
“I take care of veterans for about 355 days out of the year,” said David Van Duisen, a national officer for the American Legion Post 86 representing Washington state.
Van Duisen lives in Blaine and has been a volunteer for nine years. He comes from a long line of family members who’ve served in the armed forces but was unable to serve himself due to a disability. Several members of his family, including his wife, also volunteer at the post,
He recently took part in an eight-day convention for the legion in Cincinnati, which featured presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and President elect Donald Trump. To say the least, the event was an eye opener,
At the event, he discovered that last year’s 11th American Legion Legacy Run – one of the largest rides hosted each year – raised $1.2 million for a legion-sponsored college fund dedicated to children with a parent who has either become disabled or passed away as a result of war post 9/11. In the last 11 years, the program has raised $7 million for the scholarship
In addition to his executive duties with the legion, Van Duisen is also a road captain with the Post 86 Legion Riders and a Northwest district ride captain for the Patriot Guard Riders, which often involves a presence at funeral services to honor and shield families from potential protesters.
“Nobody gets in or out. Period,” said Van Duisen of Patriot Guard Rider’s mission to protect funeral services from protesters.
In just a matter of years, Van Duisen has completed 100 missions with the Patriot Guard Riders and countless missions with the Legion Riders, he said. His experience from the start was nothing short of profound.
He recalls his first ride in 2009 when he helped to escort fallen Custer soldier Aaron Aamot after he was killed in action at age 22 on November 5, 2009 in Afghanistan. A Black Hawk followed above as Van Duisen and several Bellingham-based Legion Riders escorted Aamot to a funeral home in Ferndale. He later joined several Patriot Guard Riders to escort Aamot to the cemetery, he said.
As a rider, he also helped to escort steel from New York’s World Trade Center to Bremerton in 2011. The materials were later turned into the Kitsap 9/11 Memorial. In 2008, he participated in a ride to transport portions of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.
“It gives you a feeling of fulfillment,” he said. “We’re all in it for the same reason.”
Whether he’s collecting board games or cooking up Thanksgiving dinner for hundreds of veterans in the community, it’s clear that caring and protecting those who have served is central to Van Duisen’s life mission.
He and his wife often cook up hundreds of hot dogs and hamburgers during Blaine’s Old-Fashioned Fourth July and heaps of turkey, potatoes and more for an average of 600 people during the annual Thanksgiving dinner at the Blaine Senior Center.
“We have to take care of them,” he said.
This Veterans Day, legion riders with Post 86 will escort members of Boy Scout Troop 4019 to Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham to clear headstones of debris. Volunteers are welcome to join. The cleaning will take place from 9 to 11 a.m. and will be followed by a brief ceremony to honor the
“Honor veterans every day,” Van Duisen said. “Because of them, we are free.”