Since 2012, American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Virginia, has served as a rallying point for thousands of American Legion Riders (ALR) traveling from all over the nation to take part in Rolling Thunder activities in the Beltway. It’s no different this year, with record numbers having already signed up for Post 177’s three-day Run to the Thunder. Events at Post 177 include a Friday night dinner and POW/MIA ceremony, followed by the escorted ride to the candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; a wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery Saturday afternoon; and the Ride to the Thunder to participate in Sunday’s Freedom Ride through Washington, D.C.
Some of the events already have approached 600 or more registrants, with an anticipated 10-20 percent more showing up to participate without having pre-registered.
Among those at Post 177 will be a group of very special guests. A handful of Gold Star families — survivors of U.S. military personnel killed in the line of duty — will be attending what has become somewhat of a family reunion. The Gold Star families are welcomed with open arms and assured neither they nor their lost loved ones will be forgotten.
“Every day is Memorial Day for our Gold Star families. We need to be there for them. Not just as members of The American Legion family, but as American citizens,” said Bob Sussan, chairman of The American Legion Riders Advisory Committee and a member of Post 177. “Nobody can replace those fallen heroes — especially in the eyes of their families. But we can offer shoulders to cry on, assistance with education benefits, and assurances that their loved ones’ sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
Dan McLaughlin, a member of ALR Chapter 117 in Butler County, Pennsylvania, lost his son Michael during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. He’s attended multiple Run to the Thunder weekends at Post 177. “It’s very, very important (in the healing process) because you see so many other Gold Star families here,” McLaughlin said. “You get a chance to talk to them and understand what they’re going through — what they’re feeling and how they’re making changes and accepting things in their life.”
Memorial Day Weekend used to be extremely difficult for Barbara Bilbrey, a Gold Star mom who lost a son serving in Iraq. Then she began coming to Post 177 and found herself surrounded by friends and supporters who assure her that her son’s sacrifice is not forgotten.
Barbara’s son, Charles Jr., was killed in 2007 at age 21 in Saqlawiyah, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle. He was deployed with the Army’s 5th Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. During a conversation with fellow Gold Star Mother Linda Lamie, Bilbrey talked about how difficult the holiday weekend was for her. Coming to Post 177 became a way to cope with her loss. “People that don’t understand the military; to them it’s getting their pool opened or going camping. It’s a party,” Bilbrey said. “To those of us who have lost (a military member), it’s not a party. (At Post 177) we’ve found nothing but support from the Legion, the Legion Riders. They may not know us. They may not know my son. But they respect the sacrifice. And every time we’re able to tell Charlie’s story to somebody, that keeps him alive.”
For Lamie, whose son Gene was killed in action in July 2007 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Memorial Day Weekend in Fairfax with the Legion Riders has become an annual trip.
“Gene is buried at Arlington, and we live in South Georgia.” Lamie said. “We get to come see him twice a year. Coming to Arlington and participating with The American Legion keeps Gene’s memory alive. I tell everybody that dying for your country is not the worst thing that can happen. Being forgotten by the country that you died for is the worst thing that can happen. Gene had two children. As long as the Legion Riders continue, my grandchildren will know their father.”
But for American Legion Rider Sharon Sculthorpe, it’s important the survivors also aren’t forgotten. A member of ALR Chapter 325 in Danville, Virginia, Sculthorpe has spent six Memorial Day weekends as an escort for a Gold Star mom during Rolling Thunder, making sure each one makes it to where they need to be on Sunday during the demonstration ride through Washington, D.C. “To have a Gold Star mom, a Gold Star wife, to be entrusted to take them on that ride I think the biggest thing for me is that so often they feel forgotten,” Sculthorpe said. “When their son or daughter dies, or their husband or wife, the whole country rallies around them. But as time passes, people fade away and then — for lack of a better way of putting it — the silence becomes deafening because you feel all alone.
“So many of them have told me that they feel so alone, and that this brings back their faith that America loves them and their children and sacrifice, and that we won’t forget them. You’ve given them back a little bit of what they’ve lost. They feel like that the sacrifice they gave was worth it. That it wasn’t in vain.”