Mission Accomplished

By Abel

In combat, American warriors are taught to never give up, never say die and endeavor to accomplish the mission no matter what the adversity. In August of 2008, the Salute to American Veterans Rally Committee, staff and volunteers humbly followed in the footsteps of their heroes and pulled off what some said was the impossible.

A freak August snowstorm swirled around the Fraser Valley and the town of Winter Park in Colorado just as the annual Veterans motorcycle rally began to take shape. “We received a large amount of pressure from local officials to cancel the event,” said Jim Wear, event’s founder and organizer. “Their concerns for public safety were valid: lightning strikes everywhere, six inches of slush on the road and temperatures which felt more like November than August.”

Wear continued, “We took a look around at the hearty group of attendees, vendors and exhibitors who had made their way to the event and very quickly determined that quitting was not an option, and I told them so.”

Pam Wear, Jim’s wife and business partner of 20+ years, told him that in this scenario, attitude was everything. “When the weather turned lousy on Friday afternoon, and then got worse Saturday morning, I told Jim that how we approach this adversity and how we display our attitude would come to bear on the outcome of the entire event. I told him as we went, our staff would go, and as our staff would go, the attendees would follow. We went in with smiles on our faces and our chins up and sure enough, Saturday turned out to be a great day for everybody, in spite of the weather.”

Indeed, the mood was amazing. Those that watched the weather reports and couldn’t bring their bikes up came in cars and trucks. The sidewalk buzzed with excitement and the camaraderie amongst the Veterans and motorcyclist in the crowd was unmatched. No one seemed to let the cold temperature; snow, rain and lightning affect their attitude in the least.

A few miles up the road, at the Winter Park Ski Resort, another event did not fair so well. “Hawgfest”, a concert sponsored a Denver radio station, chose a different path and attitude. After organizers huddled around the weather computer watching the looming storm on ‘future cast radar’ swirl and become worse, they decided to cancel the event – both days in fact – and send concert goers away with promises of a ticket refund. This concert, which was perceived by many to be a ‘coat tail’ event that was attempting to draw off the Veterans Rally crowd, met its ultimate fate with the cancellation. Ironically, an hour or so after the plug was pulled on Hawgfest, the skies parted and the Salute to American Veterans Rally began to enjoy a beautiful Colorado afternoon, playing host to several hundred displaced ‘Hawgfest’ attendees.

As the town of Winter Park began to dry out and warm up, more motorcycles and rally goers began to arrive. In the interest of the Veterans, rally organizers quickly scrambled to reschedule events, which had to be delayed by the weather. “Normally, Saturday is our big day for Veterans activities,” said Wear. “Our parade, POW/MIA Recognition Ride, and Veterans Remembrance Ceremony were rescheduled to take place on Sunday. This took a lot of logistics and cooperation, but everyone involved backed up our decision and we moved forward on Saturday afternoon with some great live music, beer drinking and camaraderie.”

Around 2 P.M., the nations #1 Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute band ‘Street Survivor’ took the stage. As rally attendees’ drained 9 kegs of beer, great music echoed throughout the valley, and was highlighted by the arrival a Chinook helicopter from the United States Army Reserves at Fort Carson, Colorado. The Chinook made several passes over the concert venue, much to the delight of the crowd.

Helicopter crew chief and lead pilot Kristie Cramer then pointed the Chinook toward the town of Fraser two miles down the road. The designated landing zone for the military bird was at the Vietnam Traveling Wall, brought into the rally by the American Veterans Traveling Tribute organization.

The Chinook set down on the ball fields adjoining the Vietnam Wall in perfect fashion. Crowds of people aligned the landing zone waiting for the rotors to stop turning. As the crowd looked on the camouflage clad helicopter crew dismounted their bird and dropped the helicopter’s rear tailgate. To the crowd’s amazement and delight, 4 large displacement motorcycles were off loaded from the helicopter. It was an awesome sight to behold as the 4-person helicopter crew changed out of their flight gear, into their biker clothes, and rode off from the landing zone toward the town of Winter Park to enjoy the festivities as brothers and sisters in arms and of the highway.

The Vietnam Memorial Wall has become one of the focuses of the Annual Salute to American Veterans Rally. Being displayed from Thursday through Sunday, thousands of rally goers as well as local residents have the opportunity to witness this breathtaking and humbling display in remembrance of the over 58,000 Americans lost in Vietnam.

Photographer Danny Barton was witness to one of the thousands of emotional moments invoked by The Wall. While waiting for the incoming Chinook helicopter, Barton noticed a gentleman with a young child focusing on one end of The Wall. Barton quickly snapped the photo of the Vietnam Veteran and the young boy by his side. A few moments later he asked the gentleman about the encounter.

With tears welling in his eyes, the man told the story of his best friend, and their service in Vietnam together. The two comrades promised each other that they would live long enough to introduce their respective grandsons sometime in the future. Choking up, the man continued to explain that his buddy never made it back from Nam and while this was a poor way to introduce his grandson to his best friend, it would have to do.

The Saturday activities at The Wall and in the town of Winter Park continued on throughout the afternoon. By nightfall, the crowds were packed into venues like The Winter Park Pub. Despite the poor weather and relatively low turnout for the 16th annual Salute to American Veterans Rally, Pub owner Jeff Williams grinned ear to ear. By the end of the weekend, Williams would have logged his most successful 2 days in history of the saloon.

Sunday morning brought sunny skies and much excitement as rally goers emerged to pay tribute to their American heroes. The 21st Annual POW/MIA Recognition Ride staged in Granby, Colorado and rolled through the valley towards Winter Park under police escort. Recognition riders were welcomed by a huge 30-foot by 50-foot flag suspended over Highway 40 by fire department ladder trucks courtesy of the Town of Granby and the East Grand Fire Protection District. Scores of locals and visitors lined the street to welcome the riders in as they proceeded into Winter Park.

After successfully parking the multitudes of motorcycles, the military parade began. Leading the parade was the United States Marine Corps Color Guard escorting a horse drawn carriage. In the carriage rode one of our true national treasures:

In World War II, the Japanese enlisted an elite group of English speaking soldiers whose job it was to intercept American military transmissions and then forward them on, often changing the message with the intent of ambushing American troops and destroying American forces. The need for an unbreakable code was paramount. The United States Government called upon the Navajo Nation to provide young men to serve as Navajo ‘Code Talkers’.

There were 29 original Navajo inductees into the United States Marine Corps. These 29 were tasked with writing the codebook itself, assigning Navajo words and names to American military terms, creating an unbreakable code that would last through World War II and be utilized in the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict.

Allen Dale June is one of only three surviving Navajos from the original 29 code talkers. June and his wife Virginia lead the Salute to American Veterans Rally parade this year. Grinning ear to ear, June waved to the crowd as United States Marines flanked his horse drawn carriage in dress blues. Dozens of other military vehicles, marching platoons, honor guards and the like trailed behind the horse drawn carriage. Government vehicles from the United States Forest Service, local police forces, fire departments and EMTs brought the center of the parade.

Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the obligatory bag pipe and drum band, all proudly paying tribute to our Veterans and the troops that are in harms way, preceded up Highway 40 through Winter Park.

Immediately following the parade, the centerpiece of the entire Veterans Rally unfolded. The 21st annual Veterans Remembrance Ceremony took place in the newly refurbished Hideaway Park amphitheatre.

Guest speakers included American EX-POW Rod Knutson from Montana. Knutson was a fighter pilot in Vietnam who was shot down and spent 7 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton. Knutson has been an avid motorcyclist since 1953 and expressed his sentiments about the event. “I am proud and humbled to be part of such a wonderful experience as the Salute to American Veterans Rally. We truly enjoyed ourselves, were impressed, and walked away with an elevated appreciation for our American heroes…the Veterans Rally totally renewed our attitude!”

Knutson added, “This event reaches out and touches peoples hearts and souls. The organizers are great Americans and provide a wonderful venue to thousands of people, even though the weather threw us a curve ball. The troops have to press on no matter what the adversity!” Knutson’s wife Shelly couldn’t help but chime in: “We have been to many events over the past 30 years and this one was by far the best! I have been so up, excited and filled with renewed spirit and hope for the US of A after this tremendous event. We love it!”

Command Sergeant Major Daniel R Wood, senior enlisted leader for NORTHCOM, also addressed the crowd. Wood served in Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, and shared his sentiments about the American warrior and the spirit of the American hero.

Veteran and adventurer Dave Barr was this year’s keynote speaker. This former United States Marine and double amputee rode his 1972 Harley-Davidson shovelhead an incredible 83,000 miles around the world. The trip took 3 1/2 years and spanned 6 continents. Barr joked that he was not sure which was the bigger handicap: having no legs or riding a shovelhead that many miles. Barr’s trip took him through the Sahara, the Gobi deserts, the Andes and across China, Russia, Australia and Africa. A few years later, Barr went on to establish a Guinness book world record for crossing Northern Europe, Russia and Siberia on his motorcycle in the dead of winter. His most recent venture earned him a second world record, as he rode Australia’s “Southern Cross’ journey. In just 45 days, Barr completed the first motorcycle journey ever between the four extreme geographical corners of the Australian continent.

Several wounded soldiers were the guests of honor at the Veterans Rally ceremony. Story after story of unbelievable heroism and of brave men overcoming adversity had the crowd mesmerized and holding back tears. Patriotic music filled the air as paratroopers from the 10th Special Forces group jumped in American and POW flags, bailing out of the Chinook helicopter over the amphitheatre as the crowd looked on.

In probably the most memorable moment of the ceremony, Marine Corps Major Brian Wood presented Navajo Code Talker Allen Dale June a personally engraved Marine Corps K-Bar knife. A man of few words and one who rarely smiles, June thanked the crowd by presenting them with Navajo spiritual gestures as his wife, Virginia, looked on in delight. She later told event organizers that this would probably be June’s last event due to age and failing health.

The remainder of Sunday afternoon was filled with celebration and camaraderie highlighted by a free concert from southern rock legend Molly Hatchet.

All in all, and in spite adverse weather conditions, construction delays and conflicts, the 16th Annual Salute to American Veterans Rally was deemed ‘mission accomplished’ by event organizers and thousands of Veterans and citizens in attendance.

“This is something that every American should witness,” said LT Col Gregg Lyon of the United States Marine Corps. “It was encouraging to see this display of the support Americans have for their fighting men and women. I felt humbled to see the heartfelt thanks I got from so many patriotic Americans, and I look forward to coming out here again!”

Reflecting the spirit of the American warrior, the Salute to American Veterans Rally Committee is dedicated to their mission to honor United States Veterans, the troops who protect our freedom, and the memory of those brave men and women who are no longer with us. Some gave all, all gave some and as long as the rally continues, none will be forgotten.