Bikers Salute, Support Servicemembers

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

PEORIA, Ariz., April 15, 2007 - Servicemembers stationed in Baghdad got an earful - and an eyeful - yesterday from about 4,000 supporters who gathered here to show their appreciation during the third "Hearts to Heroes" motorcycle ride.

A two-way video connection, provided with help from the Pentagon Channel and the military, made that possible.

The idea to put the 56 troops, including Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, face-to-face with some of their biggest fans came from Barry Caraway's childhood memories.

"I grew up in the era of the Vietnam vet, and I saw how those guys came back," Caraway, owner of, said. "They weren't treated very well. In fact they were treated shabbily.

"I wanted to change the mistakes of my generation and not allow that to happen in my daughter's generation," he added.

Roxie Merritt, chief of integrated internal communications for the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, told the crowd that's exactly why the Defense Department created "America Supports You." America Supports You is a program connecting citizens and corporations with members of the military and their families at home and abroad.

"America Supports You ... is to make sure ... what happened to you (Vietnam veterans) never, never happens again," she said during the opening ceremony.

The standing ovation that greeted the troops helped drive home that sentiment. The clapping, "Ooh Rahs," and "Hooahs" went on for more than a minute, causing Caldwell to break into a wide grin.

While the video connection provided the means for the supporters to show their appreciation in person, it also provided the troops an opportunity to thank the ride's three beneficiaries. Packages From Home and Operation Homefront are America Supports You members.

"It allows us to collect donations for the troops that are overseas because part of the admission into this is not only the $15 entry fee, but a sack of goodies or donations for the troops that are over there," Vonn Magnin of Packages From Home said. "This allows us to send things over to our men and women overseas."

Margy Bons, president of Operation Homefront's Arizona chapter, agreed that the donation from the ride to her group would be most helpful.

"For Operation Homefront of Arizona, it will allow us to have some funding to support the families when they give us a call and they have a need," she said. "(It) will also support our troops overseas, because they will know their family is being taken care of."

The third beneficiary, Phoenix International Raceway's "Salute to Military Families" program, provides military families with tickets to events at the track. The three groups will equally split the $15 per bike entry fee.

"On behalf of all the men and women serving in uniform, (and) all those serving in civilian clothes over here, we just want to say thanks to all of you," Caldwell, a Multinational Force Iraq spokesman, said. "Thank you very much."

Army Sgt. John Jones, an Arizona National Guardsman who spent a year in Iraq, understood just where that appreciation was coming from. He received many care packages while serving overseas.

"Packages From Home meant so much to all of us over there," he said. "It touches my heart that people work this hard for the people over there."

Jones also knows how much the live feed meant to the servicemembers in Baghdad. "It's almost like part of you is home when you're doing a live feed," he said.

During the live feed, a few Arizona servicemembers got a chance to briefly catch up with loved ones who blew them kisses and wished them a safe and speedy homecoming.

After musical tributes dedicated to the servicemembers and a prayer for the safety of all those present, the bikers hit the road for a sun-baked 60-mile ride.

An impressive sight, the nearly mile-long line of motorcycles drew cheers and peace signs from those along the route. While that was a boost, most found taking a lap around the Phoenix International Raceway the highlight of the ride.

The ride, which also passed Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, ended with live musical entertainment at a venue near the University of Arizona's Cardinal Stadium.

Caraway, who's already begun planning next year's ride, said the it helps accomplish one of his main goals; keeping support for the troops high in spite of an individual's views of the war.

"These are our guys in our United States military uniforms, and they come before anything," Barry Caraway. "My personal belief, growing up in the Vietnam era, that after seeing how those guys came home, we have to separate the war from the warrior.

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