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Bikers acknowledge veterans' sacrifices

June 02, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - If there is a sound that represents freedom, it might as well be the throaty rumble of a Harley-Davidson heading down the road. Multiply that by about 700 and it's the roar of the 13th annual Operation God Bless America, which took off Sunday for a rendezvous to honor patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Leading the pack for the eighth year was Elton Ensor, who knows something about the sacrifices veterans have made to preserve the freedoms the bikers and all of Americans enjoy.

"This isn't all veterans doing this. This is everybody," said the 78-year-old Warfordsburg, Pa., man. He was a Navy frogman in both the European and Pacific theaters in World War II, and later served in Korea and Vietnam, by which time the frogmen had acquired the current name of SEALs.

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He has been riding Harleys since his first war. Donning a German helmet sporting a set of horns and riding a 1992 Harley FLHT Classic, Ensor led the way with American and POW/MIA flags whipping in the wind.

It was windy and spitting rain as the bikers assembled on John Wayne Drive outside Greencastle for the 40-mile ride to Martinsburg, but there were patches of blue as the noon rollout began. It took almost 10 minutes for the motorcycles to clear the parking lots.

"Last year was a perfect day. For the threat of the weather, this is a pretty good turnout," said Jerry Stout, a semi-retired barber from Greencastle who was piloting a 1996 Electroglide.

"We had 1,100 last year, which was our biggest ride," said Mary Anne Davenport of Mercersburg, Pa. She and her husband, A.J., have been coordinating the event for about eight years, taking over from the ride's founder, Robert McCulloh of Mercersburg.

"He got the idea and at the time we were in Desert Storm," Davenport said. He wanted to do something for the military in the Persian Gulf, but the war ended before the ride was held and veterans became the beneficiaries of the bikers' good deeds.

"We only had 50 or 60 bikers. It wasn't that big," said Davenport of the first ride. Instead of the veterans hospital, they rode to the Peace Light at Gettysburg (Pa.) National Battlefield, she said.

They raised about $500, which she said was used to buy toothbrushes and other personal-care items for hospitalized veterans. Last year, they raised more than $16,000 from the $10 registration fee and the sale of T-shirts, hats and pins.

Davenport said Sunday night that this year's ride raised $12,100.

The money raised goes to the veterans recreation fund. Televisions, a pool table and an outdoor pavilion where the riders join veterans for a cookout have been purchased with the proceeds, Davenport said.

On Sunday, bikers clad mostly in black leather and blue denim were plunking down $10 bills at registration tables and gathering in knots among the rows of gleaming machines. It was a predominantly Harley crowd, but some Hondas and other makes were mixed in among the hogs.

"Anything's welcome. This is an open forum," said Dale Doss of Hanover, Pa., a member of the color guard that followed Ensor down the highway.

"I did Rolling Thunder last week," William Zawacky said of the annual ride from the Pentagon to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. The Martinsburg man and his 2001 Sportster were among the 30,000 attracted to that event. This was his third ride with Operation God Bless America.

Davenport said veterans organizations in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia help fund the event, so all the money contributed by bikers goes to the veterans. Chambersburg HOG, Christian Motorcycle Association, Derelicts Motorcycle Club, Goldwing Chapter C, Keystone ABATE, Mason Dixon ABATE, Washington County ABATE and Red Knights of Pennsylvania Chapter 4 are sponsoring clubs, she said.

For bikers who missed Sunday's ride, another Operation God Bless America will be June 8 from Carlisle, Pa., to the Lebanon (Pa.) Veterans Administration Hospital, according to Barry Stevens of East Berlin, Pa., the national coordinator for Operation God Bless America. There will be a third in July from Columbus, Ohio, to the VA center in Chillicothe, Ohio.

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