When Marine Sgt. Derek Schwartz was medically retired last year after 12 combat-soaked years of service, it wasn't long before he found himself missing certain intangibles of military life — the family beyond blood, the kind of bonds built only around steel and speed.
He was surprised to find it all on the back of a bike, surrounded by a new band of brothers who call themselves the Leathernecks MC.
"I was amazed — it felt like family," he says of the Marines-only motorcycle club. "Everyone just takes care of each other. It's a brotherhood very similar to the one in the Marines. It's one of the most therapeutic things I've experienced outside of active duty."
And, yeah, the steel and speed were pretty good, too.
A military tradition
It's a military tradition of sorts, running back more than six decades.
In the wake of World War II, as a generation of troops returned home from combat, veterans across the country found a certain pleasure and purpose through a newly evolved piece of gear they'd become friendly with downrange: the motorcycle.
New "motorcycle clubs" sprang up everywhere, filling the void of camaraderie and brotherhood — not to mention adrenaline and adventure — that many found themselves craving with the end of their military service.
They called themselves "outlaws" — not because they were criminals but because they refused to be boxed in by the rules and regulations of the fledgling American Motorcycle Association.
"Combat is where motorcycle outlaws come from," says Don Charles Davis, who writes the Aging Rebel biker news blog from Los Angeles. "Clubs like the Boozefighters and the Outlaws were either invented or transformed by veterans on cheap Army surplus bikes."
One club in particular drew its inspiration from the 3rd Pursuit Squadron of the Flying Tigers, the American volunteers who flew combat missions against the Japanese over China. The squadron was better known among the fliers as "Hells Angels."
It was just the first of three waves of motorcycle club membership, Davis says. The second surge, of which the former II Corps artilleryman was a part, arose in the wake of Vietnam. Like many war fighters returning home to a largely hostile nation, he found his own family among bikers.
That's when clubs such as the Mongols, the Devils Disciples — named after a George Bernard Shaw play about Revolutionary War patriot Ethan Allen, Davis says — and the Bandidos got their start, again largely fueled by returning veterans.
And now a new generation of currently serving troops and veterans are pouring into the old clubs, and starting their own groups as well.
Much needed stopgap
"MCs offer veterans a wide variety of benefits that other organizations do not in civilian life," says William Dulaney.
A former Air Force special operator with three yearlong tours to Afghanistan, Dulaney is a professor of organizational communication at the Air Force Culture and Language Center and a faculty member of the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. He's also an expert on biker culture — he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic — and is president of the Hell on Wheels motorcycle club.
William Dulaney, a professor at the Air Force Command and Staff College, poses on his Harley in front of an HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant static display at Maxwell Air Force Base.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Gregory Brook/Air Force
He cites motorcycle clubs as "venues to continue service to their communities and country; opportunities to engage with people of similar, unique experiences; and contexts in which the words 'Duty, Honor, Country' take center stage in all they do over the course of a lifetime."
They also offer "much needed stopgap services for veterans with PTSD, very often stepping in where government services do not or cannot reach those most in crisis," he says.
The shadow of Waco
Of course, all that now sits in stark contrast to the recent violence in Waco, Texas. The melee between rival biker groups — and eventually local law enforcement officials — left nine dead and at least 20 injured, thrusting motorcycle clubs back into the most negative of spotlights.
Piles of weapons, ranging from rifles and handguns to clubs and chains, were confiscated, and more than 170 people were arrested on charges of engaging in organized crime.
While it's no secret that biker groups have had run-ins with the law, many — especially those with strong military ties — say they're being unfairly affiliated with gangs.
Members of Schwartz's Leathernecks MC were among those in attendance at Waco, which was intended to be a friendly gathering of clubs to discuss motorcycle legislation efforts.
"We're a family club with family values," he says. "The club only allows honorably discharged Marines or corpsmen with no criminal backgrounds." Some are still serving on active duty and in the reserves, or now work in government jobs. An intense vetting process ensures members are upstanding citizens.
"Do you really think guys with security clearances want to find themselves in trouble with the law? Jeopardize their careers? Some of these guys own businesses — some are retired colonels."
The Leathernecks MC, he says, has "zero history of violence" and is now unfairly getting blacklisted as a "criminal gang."
Indeed, Dulaney says he expects many of the "honorable veterans" caught up in Waco eventually will be vindicated.
"Suffice it to say that I predict the 'cut and dried' narrative that law enforcement has promulgated will be destroyed once evidence is released," he says.
"It seems clear that many of those arrested in Waco are victims of very serious civil rights violations — so serious that even once they are cleared of charges, their lives will still never be the same. And to think that those very people have worn the cloth of the nation in defense of those civil liberties? Well, that breaks my heart."
Signs of concern
Law enforcement officials say most military- and veteran-only clubs enjoy largely positive reputations, though there are some signs of concern.
In its most recent internal intelligence report on military involvement in "Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs," the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says that even though the bureau "does not consider military-oriented motorcycle clubs OMGs, they are beginning to inherit OMG traits and mannerisms."
"In Virginia, clubs such as the Infidels, U.S. Military Vets and EOD MC have been witnessed by [law enforcement] riding side by side with the Pagans and Hells Angels in separate events," the ATF report states.
Another club dubbed the Iron Order, composed largely of current and former military and — perhaps ironically — law enforcement officers, also is on ATF's radar.
"The Iron Order is one of the fastest growing motorcycle clubs in the United States. Members wear a traditional three-piece patch with a State bottom rocker," reads the report, a copy of which was obtained by Military Times. In biker culture, use of a bottom rocker naming a place, such as a state, on club "colors" usually indicates a claim to territory.
"The fact that they wear the State bottom rocker has infuriated the [Hells Angels], Outlaws, Iron Horsemen, Pagans and Bandidos. More importantly, many of their members are police and corrections officers, active-duty military and/or government employees and contractors. Over the past 4 years, the Iron Order has had several violent confrontations with each of the aforementioned OMGs."
That has led some local commanders to bar troops from involvement in the Iron Order, among others, citing Defense Department regulations prohibiting participation in any "criminal gang or organization" that advocates the use of force or violence.
On the Iron Order's website, organizers insist the club is strictly law-abiding and make no qualms about their military and law enforcement membership. In fact, they're proud of it.
"We run like an MC from the 50's and early 60's when motorcycle clubs were clubs," reads their FAQ page. "BTW, since when are law enforcement the bad guys? Only criminals believe law enforcement to be the bad guys so if you want to socialize with criminals or if you are a criminal don't come around us. That's pretty simple."
WarFighters, Raging Goats, Green Knights
Other clubs have steered clear of trouble.
Retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Phillip Loranger, founding president of a military-only club dubbed the WarFighters, says the vast majority biker clubs — military-focused or not — are made up mostly of good people just trying to have a good time and, quite often, do good work by helping charities and supporting other worthy causes.
An avid biker since returning from Vietnam, he says, "I've been flying [colors] since the '70s. I've met every group there is, and I've never met one that wasn't friendly, open-minded and charitable. Now, I've met a few individuals that I wouldn't want to ever meet again, but the vast majority are good people."
The Green Knights Military Motorcycle Club — with 131 chapters and more than 10,000 members — is one of the largest military-only biker clubs in the country.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of The Green Knights
Loranger was long a member of one of the major clubs — he declines to say which one "but you'd definitely recognize the name." But he says there are enough bad apples out there that he decided to form WarFighters a few years ago.
More importantly, he wanted to be part of a club focused on veterans and veterans causes.
"There's always a gap between those who've been in the military and combat and relating to people who haven't served. The conversation is just easier. It's a kind of naturalness, a zone of understanding that you can't find anywhere else," he says. "Also, we all love to ride bikes, so why not ride together?"
The WarFighters — now with chapters in eight states — include current and former members from all services.
"To be a WarFighter, you must have an honorable discharge and no felony convictions," Loranger says. "We take an oath to the United States and our support to veteran causes and affairs and that we will never do anything illegal, no matter what."
Though WarFighters wear the traditional three-piece patch on their colors, the bottom rocker says simply: "USA."
"We make it very clear, anytime we go anywhere, that we do not claim any territory," he says.
Since forming in 2010, the group has helped a few other military-only groups form, including The Raging Goats MC for Navy chief petty officers, which now has chapters in most major Navy hubs.
With more than 10,000 members and 131 chapters, The Green Knights is perhaps the largest military-only MC and most widely accepted on and off military installations. It's open to any military ID card holder — active-duty, reserve, dependents and civilians.
Founded by former Air Force airman Adam Buehler, The Green Knights are focused on riding mentorship "and the shared joy of riding."
Membership rolls include Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Europe.
"Any ride with The Green Knights is a good one," Breedlove tells Military Times.
In fact, when he shifted jobs from Germany as commander of Air Forces in Europe to his latest assignment, he drove to his headquarters in Belgium on his bike surrounded by a contingent of brother Green Knights.