Legacy Run Day 3: A wreath laying ... and much more

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As a smaller group stood in the center of Graceland Cemetery in Albert Lea, Minn., more than 200 motorcycles rumbled to a stop in the road weaving around the grass. All of The American Legion Riders who dismounted from their bikes were present for one reason: to pay their respects to U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Corey Goodnature.

The chief lead pilot of a Chinook helicopter, Goodnature was killed on June 28, 2005, when his aircraft was hit by Taliban and Al-Qaeda fire while attempting to assist a Navy SEALS team under intense fire in the mountains. Goodnature, seven other crew members and eight Navy SEALS were killed when the helicopter crashed.

On Aug. 21, the Legion Riders on The American Legion Legacy Run gathered at Graceland Cemetery to watch Goodnature’s parents, Don and Debbie, place a wreath at his grave. The Goodnatures were joined by Department of Minnesota Commander Mike Schaffer and an honor guard from Post 56 in Albert Lea. Rob Phelps of Post 325 in Danville, Va., played Taps. And more than a few Legion Riders walked away wiping tears from their eyes.

The ceremony hit particularly close to home for several Legion Riders, including Alabama’s Tony Berenotto and Devin Bright, an active-duty U.S. Army major and member of Fairfax, Va., Post 177 now stationed in White Sands, N.M.

Bright, also a helicopter pilot with deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, said he went through multiple emotions during the ceremony. “Between those two deployments I lost seven warrant officers,” he said. “It’s kind of surreal. Dealing with it as an active-duty individual, as a pilot (and) as a leader is one thing. Dealing with it back home is very different.

“One of the things you really thing about when you’re deployed and you lose someone is their family suffering through it …without you to be there and console them and be around them when they’re going through that grieving process, because it never really ends.”

That’s why Bright is glad he joined an organization like The American Legion. “It’s very important to me … to understand that even though I can’t be there, there’s a lot of veterans who will be,” he said. “That’s one of the good things about the Legion Riders and The American Legion. That’s why I joined and why I am as active as I am. I understand that as veterans we kind of need to take that mantle on and help those families of the fallen through that process.”

Berenotto retired from the Army as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 pilot in 2013 after 24 years. He had multiple deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and he was stationed at Fort Rucker at the same time as Goodnature, though they never met.

He made it a point to introduce himself to Goodnature’s parents. “It was a little emotional because of knowing so many guys who have been over there, and I actually do know a number … that we’ve lost since 9/11,” he said. “All of these ceremonies and these wreath layings that we do, I’ve kind of always stood in the background. This was the first one I felt compelled to go up and thank them for their family’s sacrifice.

“It’s a loss for the country to lose someone like that. It was kind of special to meet his parents. And his mother made me feel good. She told me she was glad I came up.”

For Don and Debbie, having more than 200 supporters there for the ceremony was hard to put into words. “It was a great honor for us,” Don said. “As parents, when you lose a child to something like that, you worry about people forgetting. Something like this always keeps his name out there, and people don’t forget. Remembering him is a big part.”

“You just think about the compassion and the love and the respect they have for their soldiers,” Debbie said of organizations like The American Legion. “When you think of Corey in a small town like Albert Lea, to think that they would take the time to stop here and honor him ...”

Don and Debbie established a scholarship in Corey’s name that has awarded more than $230,000 in 13 years. Goodnature left behind two boys. One of them, Shea, is in the Army and has deployed three times to Afghanistan. He’s also a helicopter pilot, having flow Black Hawks previously and now switching to Apaches.

“He volunteered for the Army right out of high school,” Don said. “It’s a career for him. He spent three years in Afghanistan where his father was killed. That’s really a testament to him.”

A Previous Stop Becomes Motivation. When American Legion Post 56 in Albert Lea, Minn., hosted a 2010 Legacy Run stop, the riders left feeling beyond welcomed.

But the visit also made an impact on the post, particularly Wes Halverson. The post didn’t have an American Legion Riders chapter at the time of the stop, but when Halverson became post commander in 2015, he made it his mission to start one.

Halverson went online and found contact info for Bob Sussan, who has served as the Legacy Run’s chief road captain for five years. “I asked him, ‘Can you help me out? I kind of figure that maybe we should start our own chapter,’” Halverson said. “I’d never owned a motorcycle or been on a motorcycle.”

Halverson and two others worked for months to start building up the chapter. “Now we’re at 79 members,” he said. “I went out in May and got my (motorcycle) license. I did my training through the state of Minnesota and ended up buying a trike. My wife and I our now full members. Our average meeting we have 45-55 people show up.”

In his year as commander Post 56 hit 105.8 percent of its membership in hitting its goal, something the older members said they never remembered happening. Now the post’s Sons of The American Legion squadron commander, Halverson said he anticipates adding six more members next month.

“We’re doing well,” he said. “We’re growing and growing and growing every year.”

Post 56 again hosted a stop this year, providing lunch for the Legion Riders on Aug. 21. Halverson had no problem getting volunteers to help out.

“I was kind of hoping to get maybe a handful of people to show up and make sandwiches,” he said. “By the time I opened the door I must have had (25) people. And we must have had 15 Riders there alone.”

A ‘Cool’ Stop. In Spirit, Iowa, the ride made a stop at the Indian Motorcycle plant – the only facility in the United States that manufactures the storied bike. It was a bit sentimental for New Mexico American Legion Riders President Ken Nadeau, who purchased his Indian two years ago.

“It’s cool, it really is," Nadeau said. “Going to the place where you had your motorcycle built is a fantastic opportunity to see how it goes together. And not only when we stopped by here. When we stopped in (Maryville, Mo.) yesterday afternoon, right down the road they made the front axle (for Nadeau’s bike).

“Getting to meet the people and having a connection – I’m a journeyman machinist through the military – knowing the work and the craftsmanship that goes into it, that it’s American made, it’s a fantastic opportunity. I love it.”

Final Stop. The Legacy Run’s Day 3 came to an end in Austin, Minn., where Legion Riders enjoyed tours of both the SPAM Museum and the Hormel Institute. Austin’s American Legion Post 91 and Post 570 – an all-women’s post formed by Jay C. Hormel in 1946 – hosted the event at Post 91. A hog roast and live bands were among the posts’ offerings, while Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm issued a proclamation named Aug. 21-22 “American Legion Legacy Run Days.”

To watch drone footage of The American Legion Legacy Run entering Albert Lea, click here.