Kirk Lippold sent his check to Harley-Davidson from Koper, Slovenia, in October 2000 while he was in port on the Adriatic Sea, planning to pick up his ride when he and the destroyer he commanded — the USS Cole — returned to port.
The homecoming would be delayed. Three weeks later, while refueling in Aden, on Yemen’s coast, the third of three garbage barges lingered, and then came the explosion. Two suicide bombers — plus a small boat of explosives — blew a 40-by-60-foot hole in the rig’s side, killing 17 sailors and setting off the first assault on the U.S. military in what would become the decades-long War on Terror.
With communications knocked out, the crew kept the ship afloat, dispatched security details and cared for the 37 wounded. By day’s end, the ship was stable, but the news rocked the country and the world. Al-Qaeda and Jihadi-linked militants had targeted embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the World Trade Center in 1993, and international peacekeepers, including U.S. service members, in Beirut barracks in 1983. But never U.S. defenders.
The last thing on the ship’s commander’s mind was on affairs back home. But five days later, after communications were fully restored, Cmdr. Lippold received an email from Harley-Davidson. His bike, they said, would be ready for him whenever he was — the company offering to forgo its normal no-refunds policy.
He still had months to go before a change-of-command for the USS Cole. He would be assigned to the Pentagon in 2001 and would see more dark days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But during the summer of 2001 came his first Rolling Thunder, the annual parade of veterans on motorcycles, remembering prisoners-of-war and those missing-in-action, rumbling from the Pentagon to the U.S. Capitol and back down Constitution Avenue on the Sunday before Memorial Day.
“I’ve made every one since,” said Cmdr. Lippold, who retired from the Navy in 2007 after a decorated 26-year career. “It’s an event to reminisce, to raise a glass and toast those who went before us. A lot of us know this isn’t an ordinary motorcycle ride.”
This year’s ride in the nation’s capital is slated to be the last, following the rising cost of cleanup at the Pentagon, which has reached $80,000.
“Isn’t $80,000 a rounding error for the Department of Defense budget?” he asked, pointing out that in World War II the Navy maintained more than 4,000 ships with 100 admirals and now maintains fewer than 300 ships with more than 400 admirals, “I call it the ‘self-licking ice cream.’ If they can afford all these admirals and their staff, they can afford one day for veterans in the parking lot.”
Still, the esprit de corps will continue wherever the bikes roll. Next year, rides will scatter across the country. And for veterans such as Cmdr. Lippold, who grew up with the “Easy Rider” iconography of a motorcycle rider, he isn’t buying headlines that say younger people (and veterans) aren’t interested in motorcycles.
“Whether these people served four or 34 years, when they get out, they kind of miss out on the camaraderie and part of that can be joining an organization like Rolling Thunder,” he aid.
Since retiring, Cmdr. Lippold has gone on the speaking circuit, appearing on CNN, Fox News and the BBC. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010 and has repeated calls for support for victims of the Cole blast.
But Cmdr. Lippold, who speaks often on leadership tested in the hours and days after the USS Cole attack, continues to ride his motorcycle when he finds the time. While he calls Carson City home, he still lives in Washington, too, and on weekends, he’ll ride his bike to the Shenandoah, to Great Falls or the open country in Pennsylvania, harkening back to his early days in Nevada on his Honda Mini-Bike.
He definitely tries to steer clear of D.C. and the Capital Beltway.
For a man with his own leadership program and busy speaking schedule, his ties to veterans remain strong.
On May 10, Cmdr. Lippold spoke to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Md., and spent the morning at the meeting escorting 101-year-old retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Vaucher, who flew squadron commander of the show-of-force of 500-plus B-29 bombers that flew over the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay as Japan officially surrendered to Allied forces on Sept. 2, 1945.
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