Bill Ayers departed American Legion Post 233 in Loganville, Ga., the morning of Memorial Day for his 13th Ride for America. He started in 2006 as a way to honor his son, U.S. Army Cpl. John R. Ayers, for his service in the military. However, Bill’s ride of honor turned into a memorial ride on July 13, 2008 – the day his son was killed by enemy fire in the village of Wanat in Afghanistan. He was 24, and two weeks away from coming home.
“May 4 was his birthday so this is a tough month for us. It’s a tough time but we’ve got something to hold onto … I know the day will come when I get to heaven, yes I’m going to see Jesus, but I’ll see my son first,” said Bill through tears. “It was definitely an act of sacrifice. I’m proud of him, I’m proud of what they did. He’s still my baby boy.”
John was awarded the Silver Star posthumously. He was one of nine killed that day when insurgents struck Combat Outpost Kahler, and their sergeant, Ryan Pitts, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
The men and women, like John, who have paid the ultimate sacrifice are the reason that more than 1,400 motorcyclists left Post 233 for the 21st annual Ride for America to ensure people remember those who gave their lives so we can be free. The police-escorted ride, put on by the Chapter 233 Legion Riders, travels from Loganville through the small towns of Monroe, Social Circle and Rutledge, and ends in Madison for a Memorial Day ceremony hosted by the local American Legion Post 37.
“The number of bikes is not important. It’s the hearts we touch. Believe me, we touch a lot of hearts between here (Loganville) and Madison,” said Stan Mauldin, co-founder of Ride for America and a Chapter 233 Legion Rider. “I carry an extra bandanna because I get very emotional. Today, you’re going to see what patriotism is all about.”
More than 900 bikes were parked in the parking lot of Post 233 by 8 a.m. on Memorial Day. Volunteers helped the riders get registered, gave them their 2019 “Ride for America … Worth Remembering” T-shirt, and served breakfast before the opening ceremony.
“This day tells us what to remember,” said Post 233 Commander Bill Dolan. “A lot of people don’t understand that Memorial Day is about those who made the ultimate sacrifice. It’s important for us to remember why we’re free.”
Post 233’s color guard presented colors and provided a 21-gun salute, while the national anthem and Taps was played, a wreath was placed at the base of the flag pole, and this year’s grand marshal, retired Army Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, was introduced. At 9:30 a.m., motorcycle engines roared, kick stands went up and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen sounded loudly.
Miles of patriotism
As soon as the riders left Post 233, they rode past white crosses with American flags that were placed in the grass along Highway 78 outside the post. Each cross honored a fallen veteran from every war. And the crowd support started the moment the riders left as people lined the sidewalk to salute, wave and clap, and U.S. flags waved in the hands of children.
The ride shows a “sense of thankfulness,” Ayers said. “People are teaching their kids patriotism. They are teaching them that we are one country, not a divided country.”
The 38-mile Ride for America was escorted by police and a few support vehicles donated by the Ford dealership in Winder, Ga. The first leading vehicle was for the grand marshal, although he rode on a bike, and driven by Todd Durham. Durham, a representative with Ford in Winder, has participated in the ride for the past four years. Two years ago he and his family were the grand marshal in honor of their son, Jonathan Durham, who died Sept. 22, 2012. Jonathan served with the Army’s 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry and 4th Infantry Division. He was wounded in Iraq in 2006, and received his Combat Infantry Badge, multiple Purple Hearts and the Army Commendation Medal. The ride is something that has become “very special” to Todd, who had decals of his sons name placed on the doors of the Ford truck he drove.
As the support vehicles and riders moved slowly along the route, people and children were standing and waving flags on the sidewalks in the towns, on the front doorsteps of their homes, outside of businesses, churches and gas stations and in parked vehicles in the grass along the winding country roads. Legion Riders from Rutledge Post 163 lined the road standing at attention and saluting, while residents from a nursing home right before Madison were sitting in their wheelchairs, with one man standing as tall as he could to salute. Firetrucks had their ladders raised with the American flag hanging, and cops saluted while they blocked the roads from traffic to keep the riders safe.
“When you drive by the nursing home and there’s a gentleman who stands up and salutes, that’s what this ride is about,” said Matt Shealey, a Chapter 233 Legion Rider whose 11-year-old granddaughter, Kailey, rode with him.
Chassidy Gilmore cried the whole route during her first time riding in the event two years ago. “It’s really awesome as you’re riding and so many families, so many people standing there with their flags, saluting. Standing there showing their support for us, showing our support for them,” said Gilmore, who rides with New Life Motorcycle Ministry out of Covington, Ga. “It’s such a beautiful ride. It tears at your heartstrings.”
Once the motorcyclists reached the town of Madison, they parked their bikes in the streets downtown and walked to the town park filled with people for the Memorial Day ceremony. Post 37 presented colors and the ceremony was led by Post 37 Commander Jim Nesmith with honored guest, including Lt. Gen. Whitcomb and Madison Mayor Fred Perriman.
“The ability to gather in Madison and drive through Loganville, Social Circle, Monroe and Rutledge is a testament to the sacrifice of the protectors of our nation,” Whitcomb said. “Protectors of our land when our country takes a stand against something that’s been a paramount part of America’s rich history.”
After the placing of a wreath, the five military branch songs were played one by one as veterans stood by their service flag; there was one Merchant Marine. Following the ceremony, many riders traveled back to the post for lunch and raffle prizes.
“The ride itself is just an incredible show of Americanism up and down the road. Not only from the bikers but from all the people,” said Thom Williams, Chapter 233 Legion Riders director and the post senior vice commander who has overseen the ride for the past two years. “It’s all of this that makes us a country worth serving for.”
A ride for many causes
Donations from the ride support The American Legion Legacy Fund, which provides college scholarships to children of fallen and disabled post-9/11 veterans, as well as Post 233’s scholarship in honor of John Ayers, which is awarded to a high school senior based on an essay contest about the U.S. Constitution.
“It’s an honor to us for the Legion to honor (John) in this way,” Bill said.
Money raised also supports Post 233’s Boy Scout Troop 535, which made the barbeque for the lunch; Angel Flight, the Department of Georgia commander’s project; the ability to send Civil Air Patrol cadets to summer camp; and other post programs and needs.
Williams said amount raised from this year’s Ride for America is close to $40,000, the most ever raised.
The ride is also a recruiting tool for the post as two new riders joined the Legion Riders chapter following the ride.
The start of a 21-year ride
Gary Lemonds approached Mauldin with the idea of Ride for America. Together, they held the first ride in 1998 from the fairgrounds in Monroe with 47 riders.
The ride has left Post 233 since 2010 when the Legion Riders chapter took it over following the passing of Lemonds from complications with Agent Orange, said Mauldin. “After (the passing of Lemonds) I thought the world was going to end,” said Mauldin through tears. “He was a great man.”
Lemonds was a highly decorated Vietnam War Army Airborne Ranger who was inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame. When he passed, his family asked Mauldin if he would keep the ride going. To fulfill their wishes and keep his promise, he handed the ride over to the post since it had grown so much that Mauldin couldn’t run it on his own.
“I wanted to make sure I did the right thing because God blessed me to come home from Vietnam, so I can’t in my right mind not do good for other people,” said Mauldin, who served 14 months in Vietnam as an infantryman. “When you come home from war you’re lucky. These guys (Post 233 Legion Riders) have picked up the ball and been behind me.
“So I feel like I’m doing my part on keeping patriotism alive.”
Nearly 100 volunteers, several sponsors and months of planning make Ride for America possible.
“Twenty-one years is a very long time for a ride to last, and I’m hoping to keep it going for a long, long time,” Williams said. “All of this (patriotism and honor) is our why of riding.”