America Supports You: Bikers Demonstrate Nation’s Patriotism, Compassion
By Linda Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 13, 2006 When Noel Totten arrived home to find 40 leather-clad motorcyclists pulled up at his house in Bloomington, Minn., he knew why they’d come.
Universal Recording artist Rockie Lynne, co-founder of Tribute to the Troops, presents a plaque to Noel Totten Sept. 8 at Totten's home in Bloomington, Minn. About 40 members of the group visited Totten's home to pay their respects for the loss of his brother, Chief Warrant Officer Eric W. Totten, 34, an Army Chinook helicopter pilot who died May 5 when his chopper went down in Afghanistan. Photo by William Moss
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A few weeks earlier, he’d received a call from Gregg Schmitt, director of the Minneapolis-based “Tribute to the Troops.” Schmitt asked Totten if members of the motorcycle group could stop by to pay their respects for the loss of his brother.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Eric W. Totten, 34, an Army Chinook helicopter pilot, was killed when his chopper went down in Afghanistan on May 5.
Totten told Schmitt his family would welcome the group’s visit.
Greeting the riders at his home Sept. 8, Totten pulled his brother’s dog tags, painted portrait and photo out of his car to show the riders. Schmitt, president of the Minnesota booking agency, The Music Works, and Universal South recording artist Rockie Lynne, co-founder of the ride, gave Totten a framed portrait of his brother made by volunteer Rick Block.
Schmitt and Lynne founded the Tribute to the Troops ride Sept. 11, 2004. During that first ride, about 60 bikers on 45 motorcycles visited the homes of three fallen heroes in the Twin Cities metro area.
Coordinating the annual tribute, Schmitt said, is a way to give back for all the good things in his life.
“I’ve volunteered for a lot of different things, but never anything that felt as important or meaningful as reaching out -- as strangers -- to a person whose heart is aching from the loss of a loved one and telling them we care, we won’t forget.”
In 2005, 90 riders visited 14 families throughout Minnesota, and Lynne performed at a benefit concert. The event raised $5,000 for Wounded Warriors, a Nebraska-based nonprofit corporation founded in 2003 to support the soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Lynne said meeting families who have lost a son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father “will change you for the rest of your life.”
“The sense of loss on those people’s faces is so powerful, it makes you want to do something,” he said. “You’ll never take our freedom for granted again.
“I don’t think the gravity of it hits you until you actually pull into someone’s driveway,” Lynne said. “We can never ever know what they feel. We can only let them know their loss didn’t go unnoticed.”
This year the riders visited 11 fallen servicemembers’ families over the course of three days. The ride started at the state Capitol Sept. 8, and ended with a concert at the Medina Ballroom in Hamel, Minn., Sept. 10. By the third day of the ride, the number of motorcycles participating had increased to 130.
“All of the neighbors were so impressed,” Totten said by phone following the riders’ visit to his home. “At first they were concerned, seeing all these motorcycles coming down the street. But when they all came out of their houses and saw how peaceful everything was, they joined in, applauding when Rockie, Gregg and I each gave a little talk.
“I felt very special that they were willing to devote their valuable time and energies to give Eric recognition -- not only Eric, but all service people,” he said.
Totten said his brother joined the Army shortly after high school when a lifelong friend who had gotten into drugs committed suicide.
“He decided he didn’t want to go that way. He decided to make something out of his life,” Totten recalled. “So at the young, tender age of 18 he joined the Army to play in the Army band.” The soldier musician then went on to become a Ranger, and in 1997 was named Ranger of the Year.
“Many Army people have told me that (achieving) that is like (winning) the Army Olympics,” Totten said. “Two real husky, muscle-bound soldiers came up to me and said, ‘I wouldn’t even begin to think about trying to be Ranger of the Year like your brother did.’”
The Ranger of the Year went through flight school and realized that he’d found his calling in the military.
“He simply loved it,” Totten said. “He got around the world on many important missions. He volunteered to do a flood-relief mission in Albania. He did two tours in Bosnia. But he was humble. He never bragged about it. Most of the stuff that I found out about my brother was through friends of his in the military.
“He wasn’t one of those guys who said, ‘Look at me and look what I’ve done,’” Totten stressed. “He just didn’t have that kind of personality. But, when he was asked to do something, he went beyond the call to do it and do it right and do it better than ever. That’s just the way Eric was.”
At the time of his death, Totten said, his brother had reached the rank of chief warrant officer 3 and was on his second tour in Afghanistan.
Tribute to the Troops wasn’t the first motorcycle group to acknowledge family’s loss, Totten said. Several hundred riders attended his brother’s funeral in Augusta, Kan., where their grandparents had bought 30 cemetery plots for the family shortly before World War II.
After the family learned protesters planned to attend the funeral, Totten said, the Patriot Guard called to offer their services. The nationwide motorcycle group, which grew to 50,000 members in just over a year, attends fallen troops’ funerals as invited guests to pay respects and shield mourning family members and friends from protestors.
“When we came out of the church, we didn’t realize there were going to be 400-plus Patriot Guard riders there,” Totten recalled. “The sight was spine-tingling.
“We were walking out of the church, getting into our limousines as they were loading the casket into the hearse, and we noticed each Patriot Guard rider had a 3-by-5-foot American flag,” he said. “They’d formed a line on each side of the drive. It was as if we were driving under a canopy of American flags.”
Totten said the townspeople did not know his brother, but when they heard about the protestors, they lined the side of road. The few that didn’t have a flag either saluted or held their hand over their hearts as the funeral procession passed by.
“Augusta is only a town of about 5,000 people, and it looked to me like the whole town was there,” Totten said.
“When we passed the fire department, they had a huge American flag hanging from a fully extended hook and ladder,” he said. “All of the firemen were standing there at attention. Everybody stood still as the hearse drove by. It was like everybody froze in time. It was so impressive.
“Before this, I had some doubts about this country’s patriotism,” Totten said. “At that moment I realized that patriotism is alive and well in this country.”
Last week’s visit by the Tribute to the Troops riders once again rekindled Totten’s faith in America’s patriotism and compassion, he said.
Having people acknowledge their loss gives them a welcome opportunity to talk about their loved one and share their grief, he said.
“We very much appreciate it when people take their valuable time to give recognition to the families of the fallen and the wounded,” he said. “It is so cleansing for people to be able to talk.”