American Legion Riders lay a poppy wreath at the Civil War Unknowns Monument in Arlington, Va., on Saturday, May 27. Photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion.

Legion Riders commemorate Civil War unknowns

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More than 100 American Legion Riders and civilians witnessed a special wreath-laying ceremony on May 27 at the Civil War Unknowns Monument at Arlington National Cemetery, paying homage to thousands of unidentified soldiers.

“It’s a humbling experience, and I think anybody that’s laid a wreath at Arlington Cemetery will tell you that,” National American Legion Riders Advisory Committee Chairman Bob Sussan said. “It’s such a hallowed ground, and it’s really such a moving experience to go there, see the tomb guards and lay the wreath.”

In honor of the first National Poppy Day on May 26, Sussan said the American Legion Riders' wreath was embedded with poppies to remember the fallen who sacrificed their lives for the country, as well as celebrate all servicemembers.

For Sussan, National Poppy Day is symbolic of what the Legion stands for — a patriotic veterans organization devoted to mutual helpfulness. “This gets more emotional each year because this is the sixth year we’ve done it here with Riders from across the country,” said Sussan, an Army veteran who lost fellow soldiers in the Vietnam War. “We have the Legacy Scholarship Fund which the Riders embrace to answer that need. This year, we’re real proud – we allocated almost $700,000 of those monies for scholarships.”

Army National Guard Col. Daniel Lee Townsend, along with American Legion Riders Post 259 Director Larry “Doc” McBean of Clinton, Md., were among the four individuals who laid the wreath at the monument.

 

As a Gold Star Family member, Townsend said the wreath-laying hits close to home as his wife’s father, Medal of Honor recipient Clifford Chester Sims, sacrificed his own life in the Vietnam War, hurling himself onto a booby trap to protect his squad.

“I never met him. But knowing that he gave his life in honor of his platoon to save others, and just being able to present a wreath and acknowledge what he’s done as well as all the other fallen, is really important,” Townsend said. “Fortunately in this nation, we have one day that we dedicate to this. The whole nation pays homage and honors those (servicemembers) which is wonderful.”

Townsend's family has deep military roots. He not only has a father who served 31 years in the military, including a stint in World War II and several rotations in Vietnam, but two brothers who are retired servicemembers as well.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to serve where I’ve served and with the people that I served with,” said Townsend. “It’s really an honor because less than 1 percent of the country serves in the military – they’re the ones who are out, doing what the country and the nation asked of them. It’s an honor to be with those folks because they’re not doing it for anything other than service.”

Thanks to American Legion Post 177’s sixth annual Run to the Thunder Weekend, Townsend said it’s “absolutely awesome” to see so many men and women from all over the nation descend on the nation’s capital to pay homage. “The comradery amongst these guys and those that are here is just wonderful,” he said. “The brotherhood, the fellowship is just unbreakable.”

McBean said it’s always an honor to come back to Arlington National Cemetery and be among fellow men and women who served. “Every time I come here, I still get the goosebumps in the back of my neck and the pride that I was part of this great organization in the United States Army,” he said.

A veteran of Operation Desert Shield, McBean said he is glad to not only memorialize the friends that he lost in combat, but also honor all of the fallen men and women who put their lives on the line. “It’s a big deal,” he said. “Back in the Civil War, there’s always link to that history that we refer to. Whether it’s the mechanics or the history of the war, we always understand and know that we have a history that we can reflect back on, and respect it as well.”

The ceremony is unique in that it sheds light on a monument that gets little recognition.

“We pay homage to the entire Civil War," Townsend said. "We paid homage to those who have fallen. The Civil War is just a part of the nation’s history and I find honor in that.”