By Zech Wheeler
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The freedom of the open road is a major appeal for Stephen Kimmel. There's no better way for him to feel that freedom than to experience it aboard his 2006 Victory Vegas motorcycle.
It also helps him unwind and cope with the changes of civilian life. Over 11 years, Kimmel served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq with the U.S. Army and Missouri National Guard.
"It's a way to escape and have some personal time," Kimmel said. "It's very relaxing for me to get on my bike and just ride wherever. It doesn't matter where I go. It's just a good hobby that we all share interest in."
Easing the transition
Not every veteran returns home to open arms. Veterans often face a slew of difficulties. Whether it's readjusting to civilian life, overcoming financial troubles or just finding someone to talk to about their experiences, there can be plenty of problems for veterans returning home from service.
No one is more aware of the problems facing veterans than their fellow servicemen. Knowing this, the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association aims to recognize the valiant efforts of its brothers in arms.
"We try to do a lot in the area," said Kimmel, public relations officer for the organization's Joplin chapter. "We go up to the Mount Vernon veterans home at least a couple times a year and say, 'We're here.' A lot of those guys, they go up there and people forget they're there. We go up there, a smile on our face, and we hang out and be a friend and let them know that they're not forgotten."
The association seeks to ease the troubles of veterans by offering assistance, aid, company and camaraderie. It's reflected in its motto: "Vets helping vets."
Working alongside chapters from Springfield and Fayetteville, Ark., members donate time and effort to a number of causes, including Wreaths Across America, which aims to decorate veterans' graves with ornate wreaths.
"Any organization can do it," Kimmel said. "You pick a cemetery, and you sponsor that cemetery. We sponsored the Park Cemetery in Carthage."
The Joplin CVMA goes above and beyond the call in its efforts Ñ its philanthropy includes more than just community service.
"We're trying to find veterans that are having a hard time for the holidays," Kimmel said. "We can try to see what we can do to help them out. We do anything we can. If we can, we'll pay a bill off for you to help you out. We'll bring you a basket of food, buy some presents for your kids. If you need dry wall repaired in your house, we'll get in there and get that done."
The Joplin CMVA will host its first awards banquet at 1 p.m. Saturday at Carthage VFW Post 2590.
"The award ceremony that we're doing on the 17th, the Missouri National guard came up with in 2000," Kimmel said. "It started our as a World War II veteran's award. It consisted of a medallion, a medal and a certificate. In 2003 they passed legislation to add the Korean War medallion to it, and then in 2006 they passed more legislation to include Vietnam in it."
Kimmel said that he anticipated a large turnout of Korea and Vietnam veterans at the banquet.
"It's kind of a recognition, especially for the Vietnam guys," Kimmel said. "When they came home, they were looked down upon and frowned upon. I know for myself, when I come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vietnam vets are the first guys in line to say 'Hey, welcome home and thank you.' So, the Vietnam side of the award is kind of our way of saying 'No, thank you for what you did and what you're doing today.'"
"A lot of our guys are still in the National Guard," Kimmel said. "As a matter of fact, we've got a few members out of our chapter that are headed to Afghanistan early next year."
Members draw from a variety of military backgrounds.
"We've got a national governing body, and they oversee, more or less, the success of our chapters," Kimmel said. "We're technically a 501(c)(19) not-for-profit charity organization. We don't raise any money for ourselves. We don't get paid in any way. We work to try to raise money to help veterans in any aspect that we can."
Beyond a desire to serve others, the list of prerequisites for joining the organization is relatively short.
"To be a full member, you have to be a verified combat veteran of any conflict, whether it be North Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo," Kimmel said. "As long as you've been in a campaign, you submit your paperwork, you have to ride a motorcycle, and you're in."