By Sidhartha Wakade
More than a thousand motorcycles poured into downtown Madison as a part of the 21st Ride for America in remembrance of fallen veterans on Memorial Day. Last Monday, the annual ride set out from Loganville and culminated at Madison’s Town Park for a special ceremony featuring local leaders and veterans.
According to Jim NeSmith, commander of the American Legion Calvin George Post 37 and the organizer of the event, close to 1,400 riders on 800 bikes showed up this year. Including locals and visitors, NeSmith estimated that the total turnout was close to 2,000.
The event has only gotten bigger with time, NeSmith, a veteran himself, explained.
“It’s grown,” he said “We used to have it in front of the courthouse steps. The first ride was like 37 [people], and now it’s grown to this many.”
After the cyclists arrived around 11 a.m., they headed to Town Park to take part in a ceremony to honor the military and fallen veterans. The event included several speakers and a band. The crowd was comprised of patriotic bikers and locals from all over Morgan County.
Madison Mayor Fred Perriman participated in the escort. He rode in a car towards the front and spoke at the ceremony. Perriman recited lines from “My Country Tis of Thee” and “To God Be The Glory” as part of his speech in honor of the veterans who were there-and those who were not.
“We still say to those brave men and women, especially those that lost their lives and those who are with us this morning, ‘To God be the glory,’” Perriman said. “Thank you, and may God continue to bless them, you and these United States of America.”
Ron Milton, a county commissioner chairman for Morgan County, also spoke at the event.
“It’s great to see this many people turn out and pause, and remember, and honor those who have fallen for us,” Milton said. He quoted author Claudia Pemberton in his speech, saying “‘America without her soldiers is like God without his angels.’”
As the speakers continued with the ceremony, the sun bore down on the crowd. Several groups provided the crowd with water from coolers. Some sat in whatever shade they could find, though many were out in the sun. Some of the speakers even joked about the heat.
“There’s fours sheets of paper of things that I want to say,” said Stan Mullins, the leader of the motorcycle procession. “But you guys are out there in the sun, and I’m up here in the shade so guess what? We’re not gonna do that.”
Mullins then crumpled his papers and spoke about what the event means.
“Patriotism is still definitely alive,” he said. “All joking aside… Thank you. It’s the only thing I can say.”
Along with bikers and veterans, several family members of veterans were also present in the park. Honors were paid to the families of the soldiers, too. According to Skip Baliles, a city councilor and speaker at the event, military families also make sacrifices that should be remembered.
“We also honor the family that sacrifices as well,” he said. “For the men who appreciate their wives’ support back in the day, and for many of the women who are in the services today that really appreciate the support of their husbands, we say it takes a family to put a soldier on the field.”
Halfway through the event a prayer was led by the Rev. Cory Thomas to remember the sacrifices made by soldiers who lost their lives in combat.
After the prayer, the color guard placed a memorial wreath at the front of the park as the band played “Taps.” The guard stood by the wreath for a few minutes, giving a salute, until they were told to be at ease. “God Bless The USA” then played over the speaker system.
After the song, the color guard was sent out with the flags of each branch of the armed forces. Each branch was called out one by one and veterans in the crowd went to stand under the flag of their branch. The community concert band from Winder, Georgia played the themes of each of the branches as they were called out.
“All right ladies and gentlemen on the field, thank you,” said NeSmith. “And at this time I would like for you to raise your right hands so you’ll be sworn back into active duty,” he joked, drawing laughs from the crowd.
For NeSmith, the event was another success, but he said there is “still a long way to go.”
“You need to have more of this,” he said. “You have to keep that memory alive.”