MILTON — They look like your typical burly, intimidating motorcycle gang. They have tattoo sleeves, long hair, bushy beards and those black leather vests covered in badges.
But the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association has a soft spot for their fellow veterans and America, the country they pledged to serve and protect.
Chris Williams, a former U.S. Army infantryman, owns Jolly Roger Dive Charters in Pensacola. He proposed rescuing the United States flag from the USS Oriskany, once a mighty warship and now the largest artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico. On a dive about three years ago, Williams brought the flag up in a saddle bag from about 110 feet underwater.
“We love our nation. We love our community. We’re here to serve,” said the beefy Williams, who sports tats up and down both arms.
The Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association had the large flag, with barnacles still clinging to it, framed. Although a little faded, it remains in good condition despite being at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for 10 years.
The USS Oriskany served admirably in the Korean and Vietnam wars. The late U.S. Sen. John McCain, a former naval aviator, took off from it right before he was captured and served more than five years as a POW in Vietnam.
The bikers plan to take the flag on a tour of Northwest Florida high schools to teach students about American history. For now, it rests easy in the Santa Rosa County Administration building for safekeeping. The Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association dedicated it to the five-member commission, which plans to hang the Stars and Stripes in the main hallway for all to see.
“It looks amazing despite being in the Gulf for so long,” said Sam Parker, Santa Rosa County Commission chairman.
Joe Garner, the motorcycle vets leader, said the Milton government office was the group’s first choice to house the American flag.
“We’ll leave it here for a little while,” said Garner, who boasts a long white beard and long white hair. “We wanted this to be the first home for it.”