Day 9 saw a few changes to the normal Central Route routine. Traditionally, the pack rides from either Hurricane or Nitro (Hurricane this year, the two cities alternate years hosting us) to the West Virginia state capitol where a photo is taken on the capitol building’s steps before riders explore the state complex’s many memorials. Construction at the capitol precluded the Run For The Wall from stopping this year so the main group of riders had a reprieve from early morning wake-ups. Instead, the mandatory meeting was at 9:00 AM.
The early morning reprieve was not so for the Ambassador team who still had two schools to visit before reaching Rainelle prior to the main pack. So it was that I too was up early as I’d been planning for months to ride with the Ambassador team this day. There are several teams that function as the Run For The Wall as riders move across the country. The Ambassador Team, with whom I rode today ranges out ahead of the main body to thank people who come out to cheer on our riders. The Ambassadors stop at schools to educate students on the mission of the RFTW, they arrive at lunch and gas stops early to thank donors and supporters there and they stop at overpasses where supporters have set up to encourage riders as they make their way across the country. The Missing Man Coordinator works with the riders to identify a KIA, POW, or MIA hero that the entire Central Route rides for at each leg. The Route Coordinator and the Assistant Route Coordinator are the ultimate authority for the entire Central Route. They make leadership decisions that ensure the mission is accomplished. The Outreach Team connects with Gold Star Families who live near the Central Route to acknowledge their loss and to be a comfort when possible. This year, the Outreach Team expanded its efforts to reach families who have lost a loved one to Agent Orange. Road Guards stop traffic from interfering with the main body of riders. They also guide the way by ranging out in front of the main body to major intersections and on/off ramps to identify the correct route the riders should take to reach their various stops and final daily destinations. The Fuel Crew rides ahead of the pack to gas stations where they work with station staff to clear the way for the fast fueling of 400’ish bikes in as little as twelve minutes. The Staging team manages all group parking. They identify where every bike should park so that all are lined up in the correct order of march, to easily fit 400’ish bikes into parking lots with limited space, and to properly align the pack for safe movement. The Registration team validates that each rider and bike has the proper credentials such as valid motorcycle endorsements and motorcycle insurance captured in the RFTW database. They welcome our “Friendly New Guys/Gals” to the run with hugs and give initial instructions to riders so they can easily join the run. Chaplains and Medics care for riders at each stop and in moments of crisis, while platoon leaders and tail gunners are the constant touchpoints for each rider in the main pack. The hydration team roams with the pack and ahead to locations where other teams are operating to be sure every rider has the fluids and snacks necessary to keep them going between meals. Chase trucks help riders who encounter mechanical issues. Leadership Support manages the money each day and pays for gas at fueling stops while the Raffle Rouser raises money for donations to organizations along the way and ultimately Rainelle Middle School. The photographer digitally documents the run through pictures (look for pictures after the run in the Central Route Hub). State coordinators work throughout the year and during the run to arrange the support from the local communities we pass through that makes the run possible. The LEO Liaison works with policing organizations to coordinate escorts and the safe movement of the pack. The merchandise team tows a trailer across the country offering RFTW swag at every stop. Lastly, you have me, the daily SitRep writer. I report on the day’s activities and the heartbeat of the RFTW Central Route.
Arrival at the start point was 6:30 followed by a morning meeting, the Pledge of Allegiance, and prayer. Kickstands up with the Ambassador team was at 7:22. We rode with care through Charleston, then hit US 60 bound for schools in Smithers and Ansted, and finally the destination of the entire Central Route this day, Rainelle Middle School.
Upon arrival in Smithers, the group of Ambassadors plus myself turned off the main highway onto a frontage street where we arrived at Valley PK-8, a school serving grades Pre-K through 8th Grade. Unfortunately, we missed the school year by one day. The last day of school was yesterday, May 24th. However, we were not wanting for students to interact with. Several students and families came out as well as 74 students and staff from the Mountaineer Challenge Academy. A small group of students sang the National Anthem for us as well as a song entitled “No Greater Love” composed by Mike Wilson, copyrighted 2020 by Plank Road Publishing, Inc, which has the following lyrics.
In a frame on the wall, medals hanging in the hall. Near a flag, for their son, who would never make it home. Some were moms. Some were dads. They had families, dreams, and plans. But they answered the call. In the end they gave it all.
No greater love than this than to lay down your life for a friend. We remember those who gave their lives to show no greater love.
At an hour of great need, with great skill and dignity. Over land, air, and sea, they defended liberty. They were young. They were brave. And for sacrifices made we can cry, we can pray, placing flowers on their graves.
No greater love than this than to lay down your life for a friend. We remember those who gave their lives to show no greater love.
Prior to the formal assembly being started, the Ambassadors mingled with students, staff, and families handing out flags and other patriotic or RFTW memorabilia. Each one expertly, from a heart of gratitude, expressed true gladness that the students, staff, and families present were there to support the Run For The Wall. These men and women are unique individuals with big hearts and the ability to make every person feel their value. While not specifically stated, I think that is one of the main goals of the Ambassador team. It is to communicate with each person who supports us or to each student at an assembly that we value them. Their inherent value is important and their value to the Run and to Veterans is significant.
After the students at Valley PK-8 finished singing for us the microphone was given to Sonia Ammann, who co-leads the Ambassadors with her husband Eric. Sonia and a member of the Ambassadors gave donations to the school then Sonia eloquently spoke to the mission of the Run For The Wall and why we ride. She then scaled down that mission which nicely fits at a national level to apply it to the local level. Sonia spoke the names of the fallen from West Virginia and even more specifically, those from the smaller communities of Smithers and those in close proximity. These are those men:
SGT Jefferey S Angel II from Gauley Bridge, WV.
SGT Angel had been deployed to Iraq three times and was preparing for a fourth deployment when he perished in a helicopter accident in Alabama on 9/11/2007. He was a graduate of Valley High School at Smithers where he was a quarterback for Valley’s football team and captain of its baseball team. Jefferey enjoyed hunting deer and fishing. SGT Angel was a Blackhawk helicopter repairer. He is survived by a wife, daughter, and his parents.
Commander Keith Royal Wilson Curry, Fayette County, West Virginia (Salem)
Commander Curry served in Vietnam as a pilot. He was attached to Attack Squadron 145, Carrier Air Wing 2, USS Ranger (CVA-61). Commander Curry was lost at sea after a non-hostile air crash during a catapult launch for a mission over Vietnam. His aircraft immediately lost altitude and crashed in front of the ship. The navigator ejected but Commander Curry was not seen to have ejected and his body was not recovered. Commander Curry’s name is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Panel 05W, Line 33.
2LT Ted Howard Christian, Fayette County West Virginia (Gauley Bridge).
2LT Christian served during the Vietnam War in the US Marines as a Basic Infantry Officer attached to 3rd Marine Division, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, A Company. 2LT Christian was killed in action in South Vietnam, Quan Tri province under enemy mortar fire. 2LT Christian’s name is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Panel 27E, Line 94.
SFC Michael Robert Norton, Kanawha County, West Virginia (Eskdale)
SFC Norton served in the US Army as a Field Artilleryman. He was assigned to C Batter, 5th Battalion, 27th FA Regiment. SFC Norton’s unit was in danger of being overrun. They withdrew from their base of operations, dispersed into the jungle and regrouped with a Mobile Strike Force unit which was to guide them to Bu Prang. Norton was present when the unit regrouped but was missing when they attived at Bu Prang. Search efforts failed to locate SFC Norton. He remains unaccounted for and is considered MIA. SFT Norton’s name is inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Panel 16W, Line 23.
I am unsure of the impact the reading of these names had on the students present but it registered deeply with the adults. SGT Jefferey Angel’s family were present. His wife and daughter, Megan and Sophie have become adopted family of the Ambassadors who have watched Sophie grow up. Sonia gave them Ambassador hats, shirts, and ride pins. It was a touching moment which these words do not properly communicate. In the images I have posted at the bottom of this SitRep, you can see SGT Angel’s family taking a fun photo with the Squatch I have carried with me from Washington. They were a great family to talk with. They are vibrant and full of life even amid their loss. It was an honor to meet them. Additionally, the Mayor of Smithers, Anne Cavalier approached us after the brief ceremony. She was awash in tears having learned from us the fate of 2LT Ted Christian. She spoke of how he was one of her best students when she was a teacher. She had wondered all this time how he had faired. She said that “Teddy” was an extremely kind and successful student and that her job as teacher was to “launch” him. She sadly learned today that he indeed was a success, gaining his Commission to 2LT in the Marine Corps but regrettably loosing his life in Vietnam. In that moment of realization, I hope we all held her heart gently. I cannot imagine what this lifelong educator and servant of the community was feeling. I gave her a long hug as did Sonia. It was a powerful moment that I won’t easily forget. When we left for Ansted it was with a part of our hearts missing having given those parts to Megan, Sophie, and Mayor Cavalier.
At the school in Ansted the Ambassadors mingled with the students, staff and parents present. Like the school in Smithers, Andsted had let out for the summer yesterday. Therefore, the turnout wasn’t what it would have been were the school in session. However, the group was great. Sonia and a member of the team once again gave donations to the school. Like Smithers there were three donations in total. One from the Run For The Wall, one from a private source in Colorado who heard of these schools and was moved to donate, and lastly one that was collected directly from the Ambassador team themselves. Not only does this team give with their hearts, they also give sacrificially from their finances. Mary Simkin, daughter of Harold Simkin WWII POW survivor told of how she worked to have the RFTW make the short detour from the main highway to pass by the school. She said the first time she took students down to the main highway but realized that was dangerous, so she needed a better solution. At her bidding the RFTW now diverts off the main highway to drive by the school to be cheered on by students and staff. We took a group picture and departed heading for Rainelle.
Rainelle Middle School is insane. The students treat the riders like rockstars seeking autographs in booklets created just for this day. Some students offered riders patches left made but unused from the two Covid years during which the run did not operate. Others signed the shirt of one of our platoon leadership, while yet others sought out gifts from the riders who, knowing of this day came prepared with all manner of goodies for the kids. Lunch was cooked by the local Highschool Culinary class (you crushed it!) and then a brief ceremony was held. The school’s fourth and fifth-grade classes sang the National Anthem, then two students led the riders and their schoolmates in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Kirk Olsen, Road Guard Captain read a letter from Don Pierce “Bullet” longtime RFTW road guard and one of the original 1989 founding members. Bullet will no longer be riding with the RFTW and offered his RFTW Vest (cut) and Jacket to Rainelle Middle School as a gift. The school gladly received it and will be archiving it for future students to view. What an incredible gift. Thank you, Bullet.
Founding rider, Gunny, spoke from his heart about how much Rainelle means to him.
Paul Marshall, Central Route Coordinator then gave the school a plaque and revealed the total funds raised by the Central Route for the school during our journey across the United States. It was an astounding $25,665.28. The donation was given in cash and a check. You’ll find an image of Principal, Kim Tincher holding a bag full of cash in the images below. As the ceremony ended Principal Tincher graciously thanked the Run For The Wall for our tremendous support telling the riders that no other school in the area understands what it means to be a Rainelle Ranger. They love this day, they love this month, and they love the Run For The Wall.
The students at schools like those in Smithers, Ansted, Holbrook, which was visited early in the mission across the country, and then Rainelle hold the key to our future. The RFTW stops at these places for a reason. Gunny stated it well in his brief comments. He teared up speaking about how the students who just a half-hour prior had been showing great respect to the veterans are the future of our nation. Gunny is right. We ride for many reasons, and one of them is to sew into the future of our nation.
If you have scrolled this far and are looking for pictures, they are a bit farther down. Here I want to insert a Q&A I had with the Ambassador leads, Eric and Sonia. I spoke with them a few months ago about the Ambassador Team and themselves. I hope you enjoy this peek into their heart for the mission.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourselves? If you are Veterans what was your role in the military? Are you retired now? What do you do when you are not on the Run?
A. We both are employed at Caterpillar, Eric is an engineer and Sonia is a trainer. We are not Veterans but we have family who served. Giving back through the Run is our way of serving. 2003 was Eric’s and 2004 was Sonia’s FNG years
Q. Can you summarize the charter of the Ambassadors and how your role supports the mission of the Run for the Wall?
A. The Ambassadors started in 2012. Ross Currie (road guard) co-lead it with Roger Hageman former SitRep (rides out with Bones). We have been leading since around 2014. As Ambassadors, we are the front face of the Run. We thank the overpass people for coming out and thank the cooks for all that they’ve done. We seek out behind-the-scenes people to let them know we value their efforts. We give people love before the chaos of the pack inundates them. We build relationships. We visit schools to educate students about why we ride. In Holbrook, we visit every single classroom. We give out pins and stickers. The team purchases patriotic items from a vendor to supplement ride pins and stickers to make sure we have enough to hand out. Sonia organizes three overpasses with school buses of students north of Albquerque NM and visits to schools in WV. School visits are comprised of Flag folding ceremonies or are like an open house. over the years we’ve watched a Gold star daughter grow up at Smithers where the mom and daughter are honorary ambassadors. In Ansted, the school holds lunch on the lawn when school is in session.
Q. Did you come to the Run as a married couple or is there a greater story of connection for you two that folks would love to hear about?
A. (laughter) Nothing so dramatic. We celebrate our anniversary on the Run but we keep the date a secret. Most of our married life has seen our anniversary celebrated on the run.
Q. What roles have you filled for the Run and what compels you to be and lead a team of Ambassadors?
A. We were on the Fuel crew for 5’ish years. Giving back to veterans, gold star families, and to the supporters of the Run is what compels us to serve.
Q. In your numerous interactions with run Participants, Volunteers, and Supporters, is there a story or two that you’d like to share that holds great meaning for you?
A. Corydon is aspecial spot for Eric and I. We stopped to do the parade route in downtown Corydon where we saw a WWII Navy vet. My dad was in the Navy. The veteran had just put his wife into a nursing home. He took my hand, and I gave him a hug, and we shared tears. The next year we were there… “there he was with a buddy”. Paul Higginbotham. Charles Hughes was his name. His daughter-in-law would bring him. He was a Korean veteran. We now have to see them both each time we visit. Charles was in hospice and recently passed. Paul got a girlfriend. Two buddies and a girlfriend would come with him. Now he brings his son who is in his 70’s. The others we have met in Corydon have passed. We exchange cards and phone calls. Paul’s sons know to call Sonia. should anything happen to him. We gave him an Ambassador hat after which he spent the time while the Pack road by transferring pins from his WWII hat to the Ambassador Hat. He has since worn out his hat and asked for another.
We don’t always know the impact we have as an Ambassador.
We Stopped on an overpass in NM. There was a gal standing there who had just buried her father. She handed Sonia the shell casings from the 21-gun salute asking her to take them to the wall.
The gold star daughter we watched grow up in Smithers WV. Her mom gave a handwritten card. She is so grateful that the Ambassadors say their loved one’s name. Every time his name is said,”He comes alive again”.
In the town of Gauley Base Bridge, on the way to Rainelle in the Glenfare spas area. Sonia spoke about Teddy Christian. “here is someone who went to the same school you did, who paid the ultimate sacrifice” At the end of the assembly one of the teachers came up in tears. She was best friends and shared a birthday with Teddy. She hadn’t heard his name in many many years.
Q. Why do you run ahead of the pack?
A. We are always ahead of the run. We need to be ahead so we can great and then leave the supporters so they can enjoy what they came to do. Always ahead.
My takeaway from the conversation with Eric and Sonia is that they are the perfect couple to lead the Ambassador team. Eric and Sonia, thank you for your love of the Run and for those who support it. Thank you for caring for the Gold Star families you meet and thank you for your servant leadership.