In early September, three American Legion Riders from Chapter 31 in Salinas, Calif., left the West Coast and headed East on what was more than a month’s journey. The goal was to raise funds for a veterans cemetery in California, and that goal was accomplished to the tune of approximately $25,000.
But the three Legion Riders got much more than that during their mission.
Rick Phinney, Chapter 31’s sergeant-at-arms, joined Chapter 31 Chaplain Steve Culver and Past Chapter President Hy Libby on the Epic Ride for Dignity and Remembrance. The trio left California Sept. 4 and returned 32 days later, traveling approximately 9,500 miles through 28 states.
The people they met along the way and their generosity, combined with the mission itself, combined to create some powerful emotions for the three men.
“It was a huge honor for us,” Phinney said. “It’s just a hard, hard thing to put into words. I don’t think that the three of us, any of us, anticipated how it would impact us.”
The trio made the trip to raise funds for the California Central Coast Veterans Cemetery (CCCVC) in Seaside. The cemetery currently only inters cremains; Phase 2 of its construction project will include space for in-ground burials, but the cemetery currently is facing funding issues.
The group also carried a U.S. flag that they presented to Arlington National Cemetery to fly over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for one day before going back to the trio to accompany them back to California. Handing the flag over at the cemetery was surprisingly emotional to Phinney.
“We didn’t realize how hard it was going to be to let go of that flag,” he said. “I don’t think it was depression. It was more like a melancholy feeling. It was a degree of sadness. Even realizing it was coming back to us, it was still a hard thing.”
Both on the way east and home, Phinney and the others collected money for the CCCVC. The willingness of people to contribute also moved Phinney.
“It was amazing, just the number of people that stepped up and donated,” he said. “And it wasn’t the amount of money they donated as much as it was that they just felt compelled to donate to this thing. Who in the heck would ever imagine that people in the state of Maine 3,500 miles that had nothing to do with a cemetery on the West Coast … would reach into their pocket and donate $20, $30, $40? It was really, really humbling.”
Phinney said the ride also got great support from fellow Legion Riders across the nation. One, ALR Chapter 25 (New Mexico) President Alfredo Gomez, took multiple days off to accompany the trio both heading east and then returning home.
“This guy must have ridden at least 1,000 miles with us,” Phinney said. “He came up to Colorado Springs, met us there and took us through some roads in New Mexico that we probably would have never found. We saw parts of New Mexico that most people don’t see.”
During a ceremony a little more than two months after the trio returned home, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta presented the flag to the Central Coast Veterans Cemetery, where it flew for five minutes before being taken down. The flag will fly over the cemetery one day a year: Memorial Day.
Panetta also prior to the trio’s arrival in D.C., making the effort now a part of the Library of Congress.
Phinney admitted the ride took a physical toll on all three Riders; Phinney himself lost 12 pounds, while the other two also lost weight.
“Physically, it was exhausting,” Phinney said. “But not one day did we say ‘we wish we could take the day off and just not ride today.' We just could not wait to get on the bikes and head east or head west. We were so committed to completing this mission. We were going to complete it come hell or high water.
“As Riders, we all look forward to a ride, especially one where we have a cause or a purpose or a mission. But prior to actually being on the road, I don’t think any of us … knew the emotional impact this would have on us.”