By Sarah Wibell
For the past 20 years, Memorial Day has been acknowledged and honored by a public ceremony that has included Ride for America, the second largest escorted motorcycle ride in the nation. This year, barring bad weather, the event in Madison’s Town Park expects over 1K motorcyclists to fill the streets in remembrance of fallen and deceased veterans, according to the event’s organizer and Commander of the American Legion Calvin George Post 37 Jim NeSmith. The ceremony will be held on May 27 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., depending on the arrival time of the motorcyclists. Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General and Madison resident R. Steven Whitcomb is this year’s Grand Marshall.
Participants in the 21st annual event will ride from Loganville to Madison and back – rain or shine. Donations, sponsorships, and event proceeds will fund veteran’s programs such as the American Legion Legacy Scholarship, which “provides college scholarship money to children of post-9/11 veterans who died on active duty, or have a combined VA disability rating of 50 percent or greater” (www.legion.org). The only larger ride, Rolling Thunder, in Washington D.C., will no longer be held after this year, according to National Public Radio, Inc. This means that in 2020, Madison will be a part of the nation’s largest motorcycle gathering of this nature.
NeSmith pointed out that the American flag that will be hung across HWY 278 between Rutledge and Madison, and which the motorcyclists pass under, holds more symbolism than some people might realize.
Displayed each year by Veteran Frank Nesbitt, NeSmith remarked: “That’s just an awesome sight to be right there where the flag is at coming down the highway. A lot of people tear up on that (stretch), because … when (the military) brings the (fallen) soldiers back on a flight for a service to be buried, they always do flags like that … That’s a hard thing to do. We’ve had to fold a lot of flags ….”
Nesmith explained that the bodies of fallen soldiers usually arrive at a global air force or military base. Loganville has a chapter of American Legion Riders which escort the person being returned or buried. “Like a lot of these riders coming in (for Memorial Day) … they’ll go and escort the body … That is just something they do.”
Nesbitt has been honoring vets with the flag over HWY 278 for a long time. NeSmith said, “We had a problem with the (Department of Transportation in the past), because you can’t block the street and all that. So, (Nesbitt) went out and bought a fire truck. It’s a ladder one that goes way up, and then he has a bucket truck that goes way up. So, that’s how he ties the flag, and I know … (the riders and other veterans) really like it.”
If the weather cooperates, there will be a flyover during the event following the arrival of the riders. Two color guards will also participate – one from Post 37 of the American Legion and the other from the air force JROTC from Morgan County High School. Speakers will include Mayor Fred Perriman, a county commissioner, several local preachers, and Grand Marshall Whitcomb. Additionally, a band from Winder will play music, and veterans are invited to join their fellow service members from each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces and be recognized.
In addition, a mobile military museum will be on-site, American Legion Riders will sell T-shirts and pins to raise money for veterans’ programs, and Post 37 will sell tickets for their raffle fundraiser to support veteran and community projects. Attendees are welcome to bring their own lawn chairs and free water will be available.
NeSmith noted that the only form of advertising for the event they have yet to have is a television crew covering the event in Madison. With the exception of thunderstorms, nothing – not even a little rain – will prevent these riders from coming out or the event from going forward to honor and remember our veterans.