It is the close of Day 8 and I’m writing this SitRep from my hotel room while eating popcorn from Robley Rex VAMC. Robley Rex has been a stop on the Central Route for a number of years. Last year, riders were not allowed into the facility, but this year it was back to pre-covid operations where our riders were welcomed to visit patients in the hospital. I witnessed staff taking groups of riders to different floors and wings to be an encouragement to veterans who were admitted there. What a great sight to see! Popcorn has long been a tradition at Robley Rex as well. Stalwart RFTW champion, Popcorn Billy was there to greet us with his infectious personality and charm. When you go to a hospital you don’t want to “catch” anything from anyone there unless it is from Billy. His laughter, kindness, and love of all people are something we can all “catch” while at the hospital. “Popcorn Billy” was given his nickname as he used to volunteer making popcorn at the center for many years. Billy is no longer making popcorn but he is still a force of good at a shining example of how VA Hospitals can be run. The staff at Robley Rex clearly put Veterans first in all they do and that includes how they interact with the Veterans and supporters riding as part of the Run For The Wall. To a person I’ve met who works at the facility, each has a genuine heart of concern for the wellbeing of all veterans. It is refreshing and wonderful. Side note here: One of the hospital’s ER Doctors, Nathan Berger, registered for the Run and rode as my passenger for most of the day. It was great hosting Dr. Berger who is one more example of the great people who staff Robley Rex.
Another of the many great people employed at Robley Rex is Senay. Senay met my family and I last year and we reconnected this year. Senay is almost as bubbly as Popcorn Billy and has a huge heart for Veterans. I had the opportunity to introduce her to our Route Coordinator, Paul Marshall who Senay told of her love of veterans due to her family who has served in the military in Cuba under the Castro regime. Senay values the freedoms afforded here in the US and cares deeply for our veterans but that core value was instilled through the example of her father who no matter the leader has been true and faithful to his country. While most people in the US wouldn’t tie the foundations of patriotism and love to Cuban leadership, it was very interesting to see where seeds were planted that grew into Senay’s genuine love of US Veterans. I believe Paul was as moved by her story just as I was. He gave Senay both a Central Route “Mother Route” patch and one of his personal Challenge Coins. Senay’s response amidst tears was “I don’t deserve this.” On the contrary Senay, you do. We love how you love us.
While at Robley Rex the Central Route experienced something very special. Joan Shelton, one of the original group of riders that started the Run For The Wall by riding from San Diego to DC was present. She shared her story of losing her father in Laos during the Vietnam War. Joan described how her father’s sanitized aircraft went down and that he evaded capture for three days before he was ultimately caught. Col Charles Ervin Shelton, USAF is still MIA. The Shelton family has gone to great lengths to see his remains returned to the US, which has caused additional loss and tragedy to the family. Joan said to both Robley Rex staff and RFTW Riders that “We can’t ever leave anyone behind again.” The Missing Man for the leg leaving Robley Rex was ridden in honor of her father, Col. Shelton. This is an example of why we ride. Every leg of our journey is in honor of a lost serviceman or servicewoman.
Our departure from Robley Rex saw us head for the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The use of a sundial to cast a shadow upon the name of lost Kentuckians on the anniversary of their death is both unique and awe-inspiring. The use of a sundial gives each hero a personal tribute. You’ll want to click out to the official Kentucky Vietnam Memorial website to read how it works and to see photos. It is a remarkable memorial.
I wrote the following words in my personal blog on the day of our visit to the Kentucky Vietnam Memorial during an alternative run to DC during Covid. “Marine SGT Reynolds opened our visit with a heart-moving story of how as long as he has breath, he fulfills his friend’s wish to make sure that on the Wednesday before Memorial Day at 10:00 am he would be there. The story was moving, powerful, and exemplifies the honor a warrior brotherhood bond forges between two people. While many of SGT Reynolds’ words were powerful, I greatly appreciated these; “If you don’t want to be prayed for, don’t come to Kentucky.” Nothing can stop a man who is a warrior both in his constitution, but also in his spirit on his knees. I look forward to seeing this man again. Next time, I will be sure to strike up a conversation and meet him.” I had that opportunity today. Last year SGT Reynolds was unable to attend due to injuries incurred while using a ladder. This year, SGT Reynolds was present and kicked off our visit to the memorial. Beforehand I introduced myself, shook his hand, and shared a few words. Thank you, SGT Reynolds, for fulfilling the promise you made to your friend. All who are present to hear your passion and to be led by you in the Pledge of Allegiance are better for having that experience. Thank you for praying for us and thank you for continuing to serve your country.
The departure from the memorial was also amazing. A Huey helicopter overflew the riders as they mounted their bikes. The aircraft then circled around until we left and then it overflew the pack several times. One rider remarked, “I love that sound. It means I am safe.”
After gassing our bikes at Fast Lane, lunch was provided in Mt Sterling where air conditioning was most welcome. Three doors with servers waiting to load plates with a hearty meal were awaiting the pack while in the lobby and out-front organizations and volunteers were present to provide sundries to the riders. My personal favorite was a Coffee Van. Think Food Truck but built in a Sprinter Van. I enjoyed a mocha while others tried blended specialty drinks or iced coffees. The graciously donated mocha that I enjoyed was the perfect treat before jumping on the bike to ride two hours to Hurricane WV. Inside, another rider favorite was Kirkland brand 5-hour energy drinks. Thank you, Mt Sterling. You somehow upped yourself from last year. We are grateful for your support.
A long two-hour ride from Mt. Sterling to Hurricane WV found the riders arriving to a throng of flag-waving patriots as we paraded through town to the Wave Pool facility where a ceremony was held and dinner was served. The local HS Airforce JROTC posted the colors while another youth organization led the riders in the Pledge of Allegiance.
An unexpected speaker during the ceremony was Anne Montague. Anne is the Executive Director at Thanks! Plain and Simple, an organization working to capture and preserve the stories of the women known as Rosie the Riveter. Anne, born in 1939, is the daughter of a Rosie and is known as a Rose Bud. Anne’s compelling words described how “Rosies” did thousands of jobs, not just riveting, and conveyed the message that “Coming together as the Rosies did, is what makes a big difference.” Her point is clear. We live in a nation divided. Only by coming together can we make a difference.
After the ceremony’s conclusion a brief dedication of a marker in honor of the Huey that previously welcomed riders at the WV state line was held. That Huey along with six passengers were lost last year in a tragic accident. Today, the RFTW dedicated a marker to ensure it is not forgotten. Chaplain Duane had these words to share at the dedication, “In years past we were greeted in Hurricane WV by a Bell UH-1B ‘Huey’ helicopter owned by MARPAT Aviation in Logan County. The helicopter was flown by the 114th Assault Helicopter Company, ‘The Knights of the Sky’ in Vinh Long, Vietnam throughout the 1960s. After the Huey returned to the U.S. in 1971, it was featured in movies like ‘Die Hard’, ‘The Rock’ and ‘Under Siege: Dark Territory’. On June 22, 2022, at a reunion of Vietnam-era helicopter enthusiasts, the Huey crashed near the Battle of Blair Mountain historic sites and six people lost their lives. We will take a moment of silence to remember these six people along with a bird who flew into hot zones in Vietnam to deliver and to extract men on the ground and their supplies. So, we will remember the lives lost, but we will also remember the lives that were also saved when this bird showed up for them in Vietnam.”
Today was so full, that I feel as if I’m just reporting the details and not clearly conveying the heartbeat of what took place. Let me try to communicate that to you by sharing how I felt as we paraded through Hurricane. There were a significant number of supporters lining the roadway. Groups of people numbering in the multiples of tens were spread out along our route. The total of these groups was easily into the multiples of hundreds and likely into the low thousand range. This outpouring of patriotism was also evident upon our arrival at the Wave Pool facility where many, many more were present to serve us dinner, wash our bikes, lead us in the various aspects of the ceremony that was held, or were just there to support us with warm smiles, hugs, and handshakes. This was the perfect culmination of a significant day for Central Route. Robley Rex, the Kentucky Vietnam Memorial, lunch in Mt Sterling and finally filling my heart to overflowing was the amazing reception of the pack by the people of Hurricane. It rained in my helmet so that my cheeks were wet when I finally got parked and took off my sunglasses. Thank you to all who gave so much to us today. You have filled us full both physically and emotionally. We are very grateful for your support.
You must log in to post a comment.