Motorcycle Ride Honors Families of Fallen Troops
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
MINNEAPOLIS, Sept. 11, 2005 Thunder rolled through the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" here this weekend, not leaving a dry eye in its path as participants in the second annual "Tribute to the Troops" motorcycle ride visited families of fallen troops in the terror war to personally thank them for their sacrifice.
Gordon Engell, left, who lost his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Levi Engell, who died in Iraq, watches as participants in the Tribute to the Troops motorcycle ride, led by performing artist Rockie Lynn, pull out from Cromwell, Minn., on Sept. 10. Photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The riders roared through hundreds of miles of roadways and to the communities and homes of families grieving their loved ones' losses.
"I just want to show support for the families of the kids who didn't come home," said Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Cary Brown II, one of the riders who recently returned with his unit from a deployment to Afghanistan. "It's important for them to know there are people who care about and support them."
"They're not alone," said retired Marine Master Sgt. Bill Brisch of Hugo, Minn., another ride participant. "Their sons or daughters may be somewhere else, but they are not forgotten."
The riders, many of them veterans or military families, but others simply self-described patriots, crisscrossed the state to remind families that their sacrifices represent far more than the statistics blared on TV news and newspaper headlines each day.
"These losses are not numbers," said Universal South recording artist Rockie Lynne, one of the event organizers. "Each one of them affects not just a family, but an entire community and state, the whole country."
Lynne, a former 82nd Airborne Division soldier, said there's no more fitting opportunity than the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States to reinforce that message.
"What better time to recognize these families' losses than the day we as a country lost so much?" he asked.
The bikers took it as a positive omen when a bald eagle-not unlike the ones some had painted on their colorful bikes-soared over their formation as they roared toward tiny Cromwell, Minn., during the first stop during the Sept. 10 leg of the rally.
There, the group met four families who'd lost loved ones in Iraq, presenting each with a wooden plaque with their son's photo, a commemorative ride flag and copies of the DVD, "Home." The DVD includes Lynne's musical tribute to fallen troops, along with their photos and images of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're not trying to say we can in any way feel the loss you feel," Lynne told the families during a small ceremony. "But while we can't feel what you feel, we want to send our hearts out to you and say thank you, and tell you that your sacrifice did not go unnoticed."
Lynne emphasized that the visit was not about politics or opinions of the war. "It's that your son, and your son and your son," he said, directly addressing the families, "did not die unnoticed and that their deaths have not been forgotten."
"I'm usually pretty controlled, but I've been crying a lot today," said State Sen. Becky Lourey of the visit and the outpouring of hugs and gratitude from the riders. Lourey's son, Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Matthew Lourey, died in Iraq May 27.
Lucy Suronen, whose two children, Marine Cpl. Nolan Peterson and Army Spc. Laura Peterman, are both deployed to Iraq, joined the families who'd lost loved ones.
"Our country needs to remember that freedom doesn't come without a cost," she said. "We support our troops and honor our fallen, and we're committed to seeing this mission through until it's completed."
After leaving Cromwell, the riders thundered south to meet three other families at their homes. During their first stop, in North Branch, Minn., they gathered in the driveway of Laurie Pinsonneault, whose husband John, a security contractor, died Oct. 14, 2004, in Iraq.
The visit, one day after what would have been the couple's 10th wedding anniversary, helped give Laurie a much-needed boost at a particularly sad time. "This really helped cushion it," she said as the bikers lined up, one by one, to hug her and her two daughters, Tessa and Missy, and offer their condolences and thanks.
Back on the road, the bikers roared on to the home of Chris and Kelly Fruedenberg, who had buried their son, Marine Pfc. Elden Arcand, just eight days earlier. Arcand died when the fuel tanker he was driving in Iraq hit a pothole left by a mortar round, causing it to flip over.
"Now I know what heaven is like," Kelly told the Tribute to the Troops riders. "You people have brought me a piece of heaven, and I thank you."
Fruedenberg told the group she takes solace in her belief that her son died for a worthy cause. "He died for my freedom and your freedom," she said. "And more importantly, he died for the Iraqi people's freedom."
"We're grateful for the sacrifice your family has made and will continue to make for the rest of your life," Lynne told the family, whose friends and neighbors joined them to receive the riders. "It didn't go unnoticed, and it will never be forgotten."
The group's last visit of the day was in South St. Paul, Minn., at the home of Bart and Pam Cedergren on the eve of the first anniversary of their son's death in Iraq. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class David Cedergren, a corpsman assigned to a small-boat unit, died Sept. 11, 2004, of medical complications that are still being investigated, his father said.
The senior Cedergren acknowledged that today would be a painful one for his family as they remembered David, but said they take comfort knowing that he wanted to serve in Iraq and believed in the cause he died for.
"He understood the risk," his father said, but wanted to be a part of it nonetheless.
"We're a proud family and proud of its service to the country," Cedergren told the bikers. "The military is a great institution for our country. We wouldn't be free without it."
Cedergren thanked the riders for remembering his family at a difficult time. "All I can say is, 'God bless all of you,'" he told the group, exchanging embraces with every member.
The Tribute to the Troops motorcycle ride was slated to continue today, concluding with a concert showcasing Lynne and other musical acts.
Participants in the ride said the emotional day left them with strong resolve to keep the effort going even stronger in years to come.
"It's some way of giving back (to the families) and telling them, we're here, we understand, and we appreciate what they've given," said Mark Kowal of Columbus Heights, Minn.
"It's awesome to have people who would do this," said Brown, who, after just returning from his own deployment to Afghanistan and getting ready to send off his brother to Iraq today, held a special appreciation for the event. "It's important that we keep doing this and help this grow."
Brown rode with his parents, retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Cary Brown and Terry Brown, as their other son, Marine Sgt. Daniel Brown, prepared to ship out for his second tour in Iraq.
But even with so much going on in her family's own life, Terry said she decided it was important to put those things aside temporarily to pay tribute to families who have given so much more.
"No matter what's going on in our lives," she said, "we need to show our support for the families who are sacrificing and let them know we care."