News, Springfield

A tribute to the fallen – Bikers ride to Arlington, honoring Gold Star families along the way

The core group of Tribute to Fallen Soldiers NW honors the sacrifice of Army Sgt. Gabriel Glenn De Roo in Paw Paw, Michigan during the 2019 cross-country tribute ride. Army Sgt. De Roo was killed in action on Sept. 20, 2006. Photo provided/Warren Williamson

SPRINGFIELD – They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. They may have died in action during a war overseas, in a training accident or even by their own hand while on active duty. They are the fallen soldiers whose lives were lost in service to our country. Their loss leaves behind a grieving family, now a Gold Star family, whose worst fear now is that their loved one and their ultimate sacrifice may be forgotten.
Tribute to Fallen Soldiers NW seeks to honor the sacrifice of the fallen and to keep their memory alive with their annual ride. Each July, a group of motorcycle riders makes a three-week cross-country journey from Eugene to Arlington, Virginia.
On their way, they visit Gold Star families throughout the United States, presenting them with plaques and portraits of their loved ones. The group carries a torch, which was passed down and prayed over by a line of veterans in Eugene and lit by an Oregon Gold Star family. That lighted torch is then placed in a special trailer and guarded throughout the trip, so it remains lit until the closing ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where each departed soldier’s name is read and a bell is rung before the flame is extinguished.
Tribute to Fallen Soldiers NW was founded by area resident Warren Williamson. Although not a veteran himself, he said his father and uncle, as well as other family members, were veterans.
”I really wanted to do something that mattered, that made a difference,” Williamson said. ”This allowed me to give back. This is something no one else was doing.”
This year was the 10th anniversary of the ride that began by honoring families in Oregon. Over time it grew to become a cross-country journey, taking a different route each year in order to reach more families.
Everyone is welcome, even without motorcycles. ”It is a motorcycle ride, but vehicles do travel with us,” Williamson said. Accommodations are somewhat primitive, with riders primarily overnighting with sleeping bags or air mattresses on the floors of VFW and American Legion halls. The thought is that being somewhat uncomfortable is a reminder of the sacrifices made on their behalf by those they seek to honor.
”It is not meant to be easy; even if we had the money, we wouldn’t want the flame in a hotel parking lot,” Williamson said, adding that it is more appropriate in front of a VFW or an American Legion Hall.
Other bike groups throughout the country join them along the way for parts of the journey. A large group travels the state for a day or two before returning home to go back to work. One couple comes to Eugene from Virginia for the start of the ride and continues all the way back with the group to their home state. The group rides between 200 and 250 miles per day, stopping to honor three or four families each day along the way.
This summer, 65 families in 17 states were presented plaques etched with their fallen soldier’s photo and biography as well as a surprise gift of a large painted portrait of their loved one.
Williamson said that of the 65 soldiers honored, about a dozen died of self-inflicted causes while on active duty. Statistics show that, overall, about 22 veterans per day take their own lives. ”We see more and more of that,” he said. ”But they raised their hand and joined and chose to serve and served honorably.”
The torch became a tradition in its fourth year and recently the privilege of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been granted to the memorial ride. This is an honor usually reserved for heads of state and foreign dignitaries, Williamson noted.
The wreath is made in Eugene with flowers that represent the state of Oregon. The tributes are transported in a specially decorated motor coach which accompanies the motorcycle group on their journey across the country. Over the past 10 years, more than 860 Gold Star families have been touched by their efforts.
Williamson says it takes about 10 months of planning, finding families – primarily Gold Star families – and connecting with them and making all the arrangements. Families along the route are initially contacted by Survivor Outreach Services, a group that provides them with long-term support.
Others are connected to Tribute to Fallen Soldiers NW by word of mouth or found through other research. Photos are collected, biographies are written, and meetings are arranged at family homes or other gathering places.
Each presentation lasts about an hour, with stories, heartfelt appreciation and tears on both sides.
Williamson said that in some towns, people line the sides of the streets with flags to welcome them and in others they are accompanied by police escorts. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley met with the group in Washington D.C. three years ago and presented them with a flag that flew over the Capitol building, and Merkley sends a letter to be read at the opening ceremony each year.
Retired Eugene/Springfield firefighter Dave Hall made the full trip a few years ago and said ”it is definitely worth it.” His wife Marian, who met up with him in Arlington, said she was ”touched big-time” by the families she met there.
Bill Filley, of Eugene, is part of the core group of about 15 that makes the annual trip from start to finish. He has ridden with the group since its start 10 years ago.
Filley’s brother served as a Marine in Vietnam, so this ride is close to his heart as he remembers the loss of his own brother, who was a veteran when he died. ”I will continue to do it as long as I can,” he said.
Next year’s ride is is scheduled to leave Eugene on July 12 and arrive in Arlington, Va., on Aug. 2. Although riders travel as a group on the way to Arlington, everyone makes their way back on their own schedules and are able to visit areas of interest as they see fit.
If you would like to volunteer, please contact Warren Williamson at: [email protected] More info: tributetofallensoldiers.com.