By Bryce Cornatzer
1 August 2014
Over thirty motorcycle riders rolled into Cody Thursday as a tribute to fallen soldiers.
Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Northwest formed 2007 and has made a multi-state run from the Pacific Northwest to parts of the greater west every year.
Thursday's visit was the group's first pass through Wyoming.
“Our group goes to the homes of our fallen soldiers,” said Warren Williamson, the Managing Director of Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Northwest, “and we present each family with a plaque of distinguished service. The mission is simple—it's to make sure that their fallen hero is never forgotten.”
Behind Williamson's Harley Davidson, he tows a square trailer with a chrome pipe at the rear of the top. From that pipe flicks a propane-fed flame.
“The eternal flame has represented an ever-lasting remembrance and gratitude for the service and sacrifice of our fallen soldiers, all veterans and their families,” said Williamson. “The bright glow of the flame represents a soldier's strong and indestructible spirit. The warmth of the flame represents the soldier's brave and nurturing nature to protect their country, their family, and their fellow soldier.”
Each year, the group takes the flame on a 2,000 mile journey, stopping at VFW posts in each state where families who have lost a loved one in the line of duty are honored.
Mary Clites is the group's only female rider. Clites joined in 2009. Her father served in Vietnam and her youngest sister was in the Air Force. Clites works as a nurse at a VA clinic in Oregon. Though she's not lost any family members she says the ride is one more sign that someone cares.
“Giving back and letting the families know that somebody cares, that you still love them,” said Cites. “It's not just for those who have passed. Our veterans, it's to let them know, as well, that everyone still cares about them, that we love them, and that nobody has forgotten them.”
The group does not apply for grants and receives no consistent funding. What it does not receive in voluntary donations, the members pay for out of pocket – everything from fuel and lodging to the plaques gifted to families.
Williamson says he founded the group as a means to reclaim a path he never took.
“I didn't serve,” said Williamson. “When I graduated high school I chose another route to go to college. I chose a career path and as I've gotten older, I really wanted to do more. This allows to give back and not only help our veterans but help those families who have lost a loved one and a fallen hero. It's just something that I feel passionate about and it's something that my entire group feels compassionate about.”
Gold star father Tom Johnson was recognized for the loss of his son's life in the line of duty. Seargeant Trevor Johnson of Forsythe, Montana.
Sergeant Johnson was killed by an improvised explosive device on January 27, 2009 in Afghanistan. After receiving word of his son's death, his father Tom Johnson slipped into a depression and found himself needing to occupy his time with something larger than work. Johnson moved to Cody in fall of 2013 after learning about Operation Finally Home and the house being built for wounded veteran James Butz and his family.
Johnson graciously accepted the plaque in honor of his son's memory.
"He did what he wanted to do," said Johnson. "That's all I can say. I'm proud of him."
Bill Buntyn is the post commander of Cody's VFW. He says he worked nearly half a year coordinating the group's stop in Cody.
“We've been working on this since around the first of the year,” said Buntyn. “We're very honored to have them here. It's wonderful to have an operation like this here, for what they represent.”
Friday morning, the group rode on to Greybull and will ride further on to South Dakota where the the flame will be extinguished at Mount Rushmore before a return ride home.