There’s something peaceful about Zerker Road, the two-lane artery connecting Bakersfield to Shafter buttressed only by row crops and orchards. When veteran Ben Patten slid onto his Harley and turned onto that open expanse Monday, surrounded by his military brothers, he began to reflect on events 16 years removed.
He remembered being at home with his two teenage sons just like it was any other day. And it was just like any other day — until he heard the news.
A plane hit the World Trade Center in New York. Then another one hit the south tower. Then a plane careened into the Pentagon before another airliner crashed in a Pennsylvania field.
Patten watched the terror on television with his children.
“I watched my sons decide that minute to enlist in the military,” Patten said, pride in his voice. “That ride on Zerker Road, it makes you think: where were you, what happened to you, what changed for you that day? I hadn’t thought about that question before.”
Monday marked a time of reflection for the nation, including the 200 bikers who rode from the Bakersfield Harley-Davidson on Merle Haggard Drive to Minter Field in Shafter for the 11th Annual 9-11 Memorial Run, an annual remembrance of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Although the attacks took place 16 years ago, the memorial run began five years after people “started to forget this ever happened to us,” said Patten, president and co-founder of the Armed Forces Support Foundation, which organizes the ride.
Never forgetting was a theme in Monday’s event. Daniel Davis, an Army veteran who was on duty in Washington, D.C., the day of the attacks and spoke to the hundreds of bikers, most of them veterans, who turned out for the run.
Davis, then 21, remembered the noxious fumes from the jet fuel, how his perception of war being a far and distant conflict had changed, and what he described as “the overwhelming sense of death and destruction.”
He was tasked with helping fire crews shore up the Pentagon, then searching through the rubble for survivors and human remains.
“Going into that hole,” Davis said. “It weighed heavy on us.”
The run was just as much about paying homage to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice as it was a call for veterans dealing with mental health issues to seek support.
Veterans services, including a mobile clinic, were available for bikers at the Harley-Davidson store before they departed for Minter Field. Later, Denita Oyeka, an Army veteran, bore her soul and talked about the paradoxes veterans returning home from war face.
They get embarrassed when somebody thanks them for their service, always insisting there were others who gave more. They suffer from survivor’s remorse and survivor’s guilt, Oyeka said.
“We suffer in silence and it impacts our relationships,” she said before reassuring them: “It is courageous to get counseling.”