DOVER — One would think that Warren Williamson and the 15 or so motorcyclists who are participating in the 10th annual Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Memorial Torch Motorcycle Ride would be growing weary in their journey as they relaxed a bit at the American Legion Walter L. Fox Post No. 2 in Dover Wednesday afternoon.
After all, they are right near the finish line of their 22-day trek across the country that stretches across 12 states and 4,000 miles and will wrap up on Sunday when the nonprofit group reaches the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.
The motorcyclists began their heartfelt mission in Eugene, Oregon, some three weeks ago and will have visited 65 Gold Star families of fallen soldiers along the way to Arlington, presenting each of the families with a Memorial Plaque of Distinguished Service and a portrait of their loved one, taking the time to meet each family personally.
Mr. Williamson, executive director of Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Northwest, said he would gladly provide this service year-round in honor of fallen veterans, but the funding just isn’t there for such a project.
The group visited two families of fallen soldiers in New Castle on their way to Dover on Wednesday.
“Every day has been worth it. It really has,” Mr. Williamson said. “It’s been an awesome trip so far with great visits and the families have been wonderful and we’re really blessed to be able to do this. Every family has a different story, a different dynamic.
“Just (Wednesday) morning, we honored a 23-year-old woman who was an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Specialist from the Air Force. On her first deployment she was killed defusing a bomb. I said in my statement (to the family) that it takes a lot of guts for someone like that, a cheerleader no less, to be able to do that job.”
When the motorcycle torch ride resumes this morning, the group will travel to Brecknock Park in Camden around 9 to 9:15 a.m. to honor the family of Retired Sgt. Pharon Hameed, who passed away Dec. 18, 2018, from a heart condition he developed while serving in the Army National Guard.
After that, the group will visit families of fallen soldiers from Seaford and Salisbury, Maryland, before making its way to Severna Park, Maryland.
Judy Algrim picked up the Memorial Torch Ride when it reached Kansas and has been traveling with it along with her husband, Tracy, ever since.
“It’s been very humbling to see all of the different families and every one of them has a different story,” she said. “It’s sad, but it’s heartening at the end, because the families are so happy because they know that somebody is remembering their family members and they haven’t been forgotten.”
Mr. Williamson said the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Memorial Torch Motorcycle Ride morphs with each mile of the journey. The ride has honored nearly 800 fallen service members throughout the United States since its inception a decade ago.
“We left Oregon with about 100 riders and not everyone can ride the entire 22 days, so many will ride a day or maybe four or five days and then they’ll turn around and go home, but we’re constantly picking up new riders,” he said. “What you see (at the American Legion) is our core group that made the entire journey from Oregon so far, and that’s about 15 riders.”
Mitch Gauge, a veteran from Clayton, said he stopped by to see if he could follow the group to Arlington.
“This absolutely touches my heart bigtime,” Mr. Gauge said. “Absolutely.”
It would be easy to think that the ride would be the most difficult part of the Memorial Torch Ride, but that’s not necessarily the case.
“The most challenging thing is it takes me about 10 months to put this together, so the most challenging thing is six months prior, seven months prior, when I’m putting the (fallen soldiers’) families together and I’m getting their plaques and their portraits done and all of that,” Mr. Williamson said. “There’s a lot of pre-logistical work that goes into this.
“We couldn’t do it without places like the American Legion. We’re just a small nonprofit. We don’t have the money to stay in hotels, nor would we want to do that, because I don’t want to leave the memorial flame in a hotel parking lot. It just doesn’t seem right. It seems appropriate for it to be at a facility like this — an American Legion, or a VFW or an Elks Lodge.”
Jonathon “J.J.” Riggins, commander of the American Legion Post 2, said he wouldn’t have them stay anywhere else other than his facility.
“It’s a great thing and it’s quite truly an honor to have them here,” he said. “Everything they stand for, especially with stopping at all of those families’ houses along the way. That’s just something special and I’m sure the families love having them there. Seeing the Memorial Flame up close is definitely very emotional.”
The motorcyclists are joined by a support RV and Richard Gunter serves as the “Keeper of the Flame.” He takes care of the flame that involves a pair of propane tanks and has a mechanism to make sure the flame reignites immediately should it go out.
It will finally be extinguished on Sunday — which can be an emotional day for Mr. Williamson. The ride comes to a final close when the group lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “Every year when we do it, I look at it and I say this in our closing ceremony, ‘Until we all meet again next year, we now retire the Fallen Soldier’s Memorial Flame.’ The moment I say that, it just kind of hits me that we won’t be able to do this for an entire full year.
“Honoring these fallen soldiers and their families becomes a part of you and it’s tough when you realize the journey is over — for now.”
Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.