MARSEILLES — For the third time, Bill Luft rode his motorcycle into Marseilles for the National Veterans Awareness Ride to lay a wreath at the memorial wall for those lost in Middle East conflicts.
Luft had been on five deployments, and knew seven of the individuals whose names are now on the wall.
“This first year, I couldn’t even get off my bike,” Luft told a crowd of his fellow riders and other veterans and attendees gathered at the edge of the Illinois River Tuesday morning. “I was overwhelmed with emotion.”
Last year, he was the one who laid the wreath.
And for him, as difficult as it is to think about his fallen peers, it was important to remember.
“This just means the world to me,” he said.
The motorcycle ride, begun in 2005, is a ten-day trip from Sacramento to Washington, D.C. At stops along the way, riders — about 75 percent of whom are veterans themselves — attend memorial services, visit with veterans and speak at schools about the importance of remembering those who serve.
In front of the Marseilles memorial, they did just that.
Jerry Conner, national coordinator fo rthe National Veterans Awareness Organization, recognized several local veterans from World War II and the Korean War.
The Korea veteran, Larry Wilson, called his war “the forgotten war.”
“You’re wrong,” Conner told Wilson. “We are not forgetting.”
Tears welled in Wilson’s eyes as the crowd gave a round of applause.
“That meant a lot to me,” Wilson said after the ceremony. “I felt a little emotional there.”
When Ride Leader Steve Mulcahy helped start the event, that was the main point.
“Our goal is to stop and thank veterans for their sacrifice,” said Mulcahy, who served in Vietnam. “It’s just so neat to see the light in their eyes. We always talk about camaraderie among service members, and that’s there.”
Keith St. Onge, the organization’s Illinois coordinator, recalled meeting a young man on the ride during a stop in Nebraska.
The man stopped St. Onge and asked if he was in the service. St. Onge said he was. The young man shook his hand, thanked him for his service and thanked him for honoring fellow veterans.
The young man, it turned out, was an enlisted Marine set to deploy.
“It’s about veterans, but it’s also about those currently serving,” St. Onge said.
Interactions like that, and the one with the Korean War vet, happen all across the country, Conner said.
A lot of the veterans in hospitals and homes do not get many visitors and stopping by to speak with them — and more importantly, listen — means a lot to them, added Conner.
And that’s something he’d like civilians to do, too.
“Take an hour, go to a VA home and shake a veteran’s hand,” Conner said. “Show them that they’re not forgotten.”
Before they laid a wreath at the wall Tuesday, Conner spoke of the symbols present at the event.
The first was the veterans before them — a symbol of the sacrifices made by service members. Two veterans of the Global War on Terror were honored with medals.
The second was the dry ground they stood on — a symbol of the hard work Marseilles and emergency crews have put into the clean-up effort following last month’s severe flooding that left much of the village under water.
The third was the wall itself.
“This is a symbol of what it takes ...to keep this country free,” Conner said.
To the sound of “Taps,” they laid the wreath before the wall.
Then, the riders walked around the memorial. Some searched the names, rubbing onto sheets of white paper the names of people they’d known and haven’t forgotten.
The riders are scheduled to arrive in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, where they will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, remember fellow veterans at military memorials, and participate in the Rolling Thunder demonstration.