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Monday, October 23, 2006

Chilly Daze

They're Home!

"You're sure you still vant to do this?" asked my Austrian wife, Dagmar. "It's awfully cold out there."

"Yeah, I still want to do this," I said. "Can you help me zip this silly thing?" At the moment I was wearing a nice thick pair of socks, long-johns, blue jeans, T-shirt, long-sleeved baggy T-shirt, long-sleeved overshirt and my old Army boots. I had my leather chaps strapped on, but they weren't too happy about zipping up around my left leg. (That's the fat one. Why I have one fat leg and one skinny leg I don't know, but it seems that I do...)

"Hold on," my wife mumbled, struggling with the errant zipper. "Quit it mit der moving around all the time -- there. I almost have it..." With that she gave a mighty tug on the zipper, which obediently zipped down to my ankle. "There you go."

With that I did the "can't bend my knees 'cause I have so much stuff on" waddle to the table to get the rest of my stuff. Coat, vest, gloves, scarf-thingy around my neck, helmet... "I have to go," I said, pulling my coat on. "Grandpa would have done this."

Grandpa would have been there. My grandfather served in the European theater in World War II. He didn't talk about it much, but he kept on being a Master Sergeant in the Iowa Army National Guard for years and years afterwards. Every morning before breakfast he went outside and put the American flag up outside his front door. He took being an American seriously. People on the street called him "sir" and treated him with respect. So, on this day, the day Troop C of the 113th Cavalry, a descendant of my grandfather's Guard unit, came home to LeMars from serving in Iraq, you can bet I was going to be there to welcome the troops home. "Besides," I continued, "that's my old unit, too. And a couple of the guys have boys in the LeMars unit. I want to be there for them, too."

Troop C (I still want to call it Company A; it was Company K back in grandpappy's day) served more than a year in Iraq. They got released to Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin and were coming across Minnesota on a couple buses. I was on my way to meet them at Worthington, Minnesota on my motorcycle to help escort the convoy the last 80 miles to LeMars (which lives just north of Sioux City in the northwest corner of Iowa). The American Legion Riders (ALR) planned the escort, which was open to everyone via the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR). So, when I said "a couple of the guys," I was talking about my buddies in the ALR and PGR.

"What's that for," asked my bride, pointing to the glove I was pulling on at the moment. "That thing on your finger?"

I looked at my brand new gloves. "Oh, that," I said. "That's a little squeegee to get the rain off your glasses." It's kinda cute - a little windshield wiper on the left index finger. Someone was thinking when they designed that! "Well, I'm off," I said, kissing her on the nose. I waddled out to start the bike. You know, chaps are mighty convenient at times, but boy I wish they covered a bit more sometimes -- that seat was COLD when I plopped my tuckus down.

Twenty minutes later I was happily tootling down the road to LeMars, a full load of gas in the tank and scarf over my nose. As I went through Merrill, one of the small towns between Sioux City and LeMars, I chanced upon a fellow Legion Rider on his cool-looking Goldwing Trike. He was covered from head to toe in snowmobile equipment. At the first stop light in LeMars I hollered over, "How cold do you think it is?" He shrugged and hollered back, "I dunno - maybe 35 degrees? Are those new gloves?"

For those of you who don't have motorcycles, let me pause here to tell you that I've been cold when it's 74 degrees. Wind chill is NASTY when you're going 70 miles per hour! Next time you're out driving around on a 30 or 40 degree day, stick your arm out the window of your car. So this was not a day for joy-riding, lemme tell ya!

"Well," I thought, "At least I'm not the only one doing this..." I have to admit, I had visions of being the only one to actually show up on a motorcycle; that I'd get there to find that everyone else was smart enough to drive a car... When Trikerider and I pulled around the corner and went the last few blocks to the Legion Hall where we were supposed to meet, I found myself looking at about 20 bikes already lined up and ready to go. Evidently there are other people out there who find this kind of thing important! We had to park around the corner, there were so many bikes there. The local news was standing outside, interviewing our Ride Captain, so Trikerider and I hung around taking pictures of each other for a few minutes until the TV cameras were off, then went inside.

After a few minutes, the Ride Captain called us together for a short safety meeting, then off we went to get on our bikes. I know I was wondering to myself if I could make it all the way to Worthington... The 25 miles from Sioux City kind of spooked me a bit, to be honest. My fingers and toes and even my nose were a bit sore. "Hey, before we go, try these," said my buddy, Trikerider. He handed me some of those little hand warmer doohickies. I put 'em in my gloves and immediately knew that I gotta get me some of these and keep 'em in my saddlebags! They really saved the day, as far as I'm concerned!

And about that quick, we were off in a thundering herd. Down the street, take a right on the highway, get the formation correct (we were riding staggered), and settle back. We stopped briefly at the first town up the road to pick up a few riders who were meeting us there, then made our way to the nearest on-ramp. Unfortunately, on that stretch, one of us hit a patch of gravel on the road and went down. The only good thing about the situation is that in a group like this there are plenty of people with medical training (Army medics and such) and plenty of people with the leadership skills necessary to tell us to get our bikes off the road and stay back... Last I heard, K was in the hospital with a broken leg -- I hope she's doing well!

So, we were all a bit somber when we resumed our trip after the ambulance took our compadre off to get fixed, but we did resume.

Another 25 miles or so up the road we stopped again at a gas station. By the time I had my kickstand down and sprinted (as well as a guy can run with that many clothes on) inside I found I was about fifteenth in line for the restroom. Patience is a virtue, I guess, but we decided that discretion is the better part of valor and used the ladies' room. I'm sure the restroom gods will forgive us.

Once we got to the truck stop in Worthington where we were to meet the buses, we were all a bit worried about being able to make it the entire 75 miles back to LeMars in one shot. It was okay riding in this kind of cold, provided we stopped every 25 miles, but to go 75 miles? In the dark...?

"It'll be an hour and a half yet," hollered the Ride Captain, cell phone stuck in his ear. "They just passed Albert Lea - one of the buses had some problems." We all looked at each other. We all looked at the diner, where we could see happy smiley people eating what appeared to be WARM food. We all looked at each other... Within, oh, two minutes or so, we all had our hands wrapped around warm coffee cups and were perusing the menu.

The whole way to Worthington, we'd been followed by a pickup truck carrying two soldiers from the 113th Cav that had been sent home a few weeks early due to medical issues. As we sat at the truck stop I watched these two get more and more nervous, eager, excited... They were really looking forward to riding back to LeMars on the buses with their unit! The whole trip, up until then, had been taken up with thoughts of the cold. But seeing these two so eager to rejoin their unit made me realize all over again just exactly why I was there. I don't know any of the men in the unit, but it's my job to be sure they get honored. They've been through a lot - they deserve a good homecoming!

As I sat, waiting for my grilled cheese sandwich, the guy across the table mentioned that his son was in one of the buses. "He's a driver," he said. "By last May he'd had three Humvee's blown up out from underneath him. He hasn't mentioned it recently, though. I guess you kind of get used to it after a while."

A lady from the next table noticed all the black leather present in the diner. I could see her visibly struggling with her question, but she finally leaned over and asked my buddy, "What are you guys doing here?" He explained that we were meeting the LeMars National Guard unit to escort them home from Iraq. "Oh, what a wonderful thing to do!" she said. "I bet there are a lot of happy people in LeMars tonight!" We smiled and nodded. I thought of Sergeant Sesker's family and wondered what they were doing, what they were feeling. They don't have anyone getting off the bus this night; he was lost in April.

About that time the Ride Captain walked past. "They're in Jackson now," he said. "It'll be about twenty minutes or so."

We all started zipping, buttoning and strapping ourselves into our various outfits and made our way outside to start our bikes. (Motorcycle engines take a while to warm up.) I overheard an interesting conversation while the bikes were quietly rumbling to themselves... "Did you see combat," asked one guy. "Yep," answered the other. "I was a medic in Vietnam." The first guy looked surprised. "So was I! They made me be a forward observer too. Did they make you do that?" The second guy shook his head. "No, I didn't have to do all that dangerous stuff. They just threw me out of airplanes..."

After a few minutes, a call went up - "There they are!" Sure enough, two buses full of soldiers pulled in. The line of bikers all started honking their horns and cheering - and so did the people in the diner. The soldiers piled off the buses and the bikers piled off their bikes for an impromptu five-minute back-slapping session in the parking lot. I tried to find my buddy who's boy was on the bus, but I couldn't find them. I really wanted to get a picture of that moment...

All too quickly the soldiers were back on the buses and we were back on our bikes. With a determined rumble we left the parking lot and headed down the road to home. Before we left Worthington I saw a group of people standing along the side of the road, waving flags, holding a sheet with "Thank You" painted on it. I knew it was going to be a good ride.

We settled in for the ride. I could see a line of flashing taillights spread a good half a mile in front of me. There were at least that many bikes behind me, too. All I could see were headlights and taillights, stretching into the distance...

Fifteen or twenty miles down the road we passed the first town. I could see, miles ahead, flashing lights. As we got closer I started to wonder if there had been an accident on the highway - the lights weren't moving. Ahhh! I see! The local police had all their squad cars parked along the overpass, right above the highway, with all their lights flashing. Townspeople were gathered along the railing, waving flags and signs. I could hear them cheering for the troops over the rumble of the bikes.

The next town had the same thing - firetrucks, police cars, lights, sirens, a HUGE flag, townspeople cheering... So did the town after that, and the next town... People were standing alongside the road, wearing their winter coats and floppy hats, waiting to see the soldiers come home. It was quite the sight!

Soon we came to the outskirts of LeMars. Every single light pole, tree, road sign, car and truck had a big yellow ribbon tied on it. We turned off the highway to go uptown, then to the high school. Horns were honking, people were cheering, flags were waving - it seemed the whole town turned out to welcome the boys home! When we pulled into the high school parking lot, we found that the entire high school auditorium was full to overflowing with people waiting for the soldiers. We parked our bikes and pretty much ran to the front of the high school to see the celebration. The firetruck was parked on the yard, a big American flag waving in the breeze, hanging from the ladder. People were lined up along the front of the school, waiting to catch first glimpse of their loved ones, home from combat. My wife and mother-in-law were there, waving our flag. As I looked around I spotted my mother as well - she'd been waiting downtown for the buses to pass before she came to the ceremony.

The troops came off the bus and formed up in front of the school, then inside they went. We followed, but there wasn't room in the gym for all of us, so we kinda stood in the entryway and watched. Someone handed me a program with the unit's history...

"Troop C, 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry, augmented by Troops A, B, and Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry; and 1st Battalion, 194th Field Artillery was mobilized under partial mobilization callup on July 7, 2005. These 155 soldiers were mobilized in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom 05-07. Troop C conducted mobilization training at Fort Lewis, WA from July through October and entered the Iraq theater of operations on October 30, 2005. Troop C was based out of Camp Ashraf, Forward Operating Base Grizzly in the Diyala Province (approximately 30 miles north of Baghdad) where they conducted security escort millions to Baghdad and Logistic Support Area Anaconda, IED route clearance, and security presence patrols. In addition, the unit maintained numerous static fixed and security positions as well as security escorts for the State Department."


The flyer went on to mention that the unit received more than 60 Combat Action Badges, over ten Purple Hearts, and 20 Bronze Stars, and had sustained more than 50 improvised explosive device strikes in the 3,000+ missions they completed.

We couldn't hear what was going on inside the gym, but we didn't really need to know. All that mattered is that there are hundreds of happy families, and hundreds of soldiers home safe. There were lots of smiles!

I'm happy I went. (I have more photos that can be seen HERE if you're interested.)

From the program: "And lest we forget our fallen comrade, Sergeant Dan Sesker, who entered Fiddler's Green on April 6, 2006."

7 Comments:

Anonymous Dagmar said...

My Love

You descript the event beautifully. You have such a gift with words. I am so very proud of you for going on the ride and serving your country.

Dagmar

2:44 PM  
Blogger sherrij said...

Chris,
We have not met yet but, I can hardly wait to meet you and thank you in person for such a wonderful account of this trip. I too wondered if my husband would show up and be the only one there! He was bound and determined to make this ride for our son. I cannot describe the feeling of waiting to see both the 113th and the Legion Riders roll in. I had the cell phone on and held up high so my daughter-in-law could hear what was going on outside the auditorium and she began to cry as she heard first the sirens and then the rumbling of the bikes and finally the cheers at the first sight of the soldiers. Thanks again for the beautiful narrative and for sharing it with us! God Bless, Trikerider's Wife

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Chris, for both the story and the deed.

5:16 AM  
Anonymous Mike Luken said...

Wonderfull account of Saturday night. Sure was cold! Had to laugh at your thoughts as many were the same as mine like wondering if I'd be the only crazy fool on a bike. Was thrilled to see the line in front of the AML pulling into downtown. Came from Cherokee and the cross wind was nasty.
I remember seeing you on the ride. It's nice to put a name to a face. You even got a picture of my bike, Honda Shadow with flags on back.
Picture of me from behind too.
Thanks for the article and photos
All were 1st class.
By the way, showed your article to my Dad and he said that he recognixed your last name and may have gone to school with your Dad in LeMars. Said the photo of your Grandad had a strong resemblence to the guy he went to school with.
Small world ain't it!
Hope the opportunity to ride with you again is just as joyous.
Mike

8:52 PM  
Blogger gerberdaisy said...

what a beautiful story!!! You are special.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Aw, shucks... You guys all say such nice things! I just rode my motorcycle and wrote about it... The soldiers are doing all the hard stuff.

10:55 PM  
Blogger disa said...

I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.

9:57 AM  

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