It's one thing to ride a motorcycle across the country in the name of fallen veterans. It's another to have a close brush with a tornado, hit a deer and keep going, all with only one good eye.
That's what Petaluman Victor Vaz did this May after a friend invited him to join an event called Run for the Wall, now in its 25th year. About 1,500 participating motorcyclists take to the highway to ride from California to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., all to honor fallen or missing-in-action soldiers and to promote healing among veterans and their families.
Along the way, riders make stops at memorials, veterans' hospitals and schools.
"You're not doing it for yourself, you're doing it for those who can't," said Vaz, who never served in the armed forces but had friends who did.
At the beginning of the trip, he received a picture of Major John O'Grady, who went missing in action in Vietnam. He carried the picture on the back of his motorcycle all the way to Washington.
"I'm really proud of what he did," said friend and neighbor Bob Berry, who served during the Vietnam era and lost three friends during the war. He first got to know Vaz through a car detailing business that Vaz ran for about 10 years. "It meant a lot that he rode to the wall."
Vaz, a one-time Elvis impersonator and skydiver who says he's been riding motorcycles ever since he "came out of the womb" is no stranger to adventures.
But his ride to Washington in honor of veterans, he said, was different — and better — than all the rest.
"I like to do new things, to have adventures," he said. "But out of everything I've done, this takes the cake. Nothing will ever surpass it."
Vaz, 51, grew up on a ranch in Petaluma and "lives the motorcycle life," as one friend put it. He looks the part with pierced ears, salt and pepper rockabilly hair, and a closet full of leather jackets.
His Harley Davidson has been custom designed to resemble a 1950s bomber plane.
But his two small dogs, a chihuahua and a Jack Russell terrier, reveal a softer side. He's converted most of his yard into a neighborhood dog park called "Field of Dogs." The Jack Russell, Cooley, sometimes rides along in a special carrier, protected with a leather helmet and goggles.
Cooley stayed home for Vaz's most recent adventure, which began when he rode out of town on May 12. Each day, he cruised closer to Washington in a line of motorcycles that stretched down the highway for more than eight miles.
In Kansas, they rode past tornadoes that ravaged the area. They rode on, against gusting winds and pelting rain. Each night, they had to make their destination, usually between 200 and 300 miles closer to Washington than when they started. Most often, they didn't even stop to put on raingear.
Some motorcyclists got into accidents along the way and were cared for by medical personnel that accompanied the caravan.
The group had to keep riding; they couldn't stop to help.
That was hard for Vaz, who had been in two major accidents, one in 2009 in which he nearly lost his leg and another in 2011 that left him blind in his left eye. When asked about how the eye affects his riding, he shrugged. "I just deal with it."