Privilege is defined as: A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, or class. I must admit that I live a privileged life; one without daily fear for the safety of the ones who matter most to me. Straight up, I am guilty; guilty of not considering all the personal sacrifices necessary to maintain the safety and security we enjoy. Recognition of my oversight swept over me on Saturday, October 2 when I participated in the Fort Riley Open House and Welcome Home troops celebration.
The Employee Riders Association (ERA) of the Kansas City Harley-Davidson Assembly Plant received an invitation from the base commander to participate in this fall’s Welcome Home celebration. Organized since the plant opened in 1997, the ERA is made up of 150 staffers and either organizes or participates in several events throughout the year. They also play a significant role in one local charity, the annual March of Dimes Bikers for Babies Ride. For the previous five years, they have been the single biggest contributor, raising over $40,000 during that time.
Early that Saturday morning, temperatures were in the mid-thirties when I met up with the ERA group at the assembly plant. Arriving at 7 a.m., there were twenty-six bikes with riders bundled up, sipping coffee, eating doughnuts and preparing for the chilling cold we would soon experience. We all felt the same - if the soldiers we would be meeting could leave their families behind, eat, sleep and live in the suffering heat and desert conditions of Iraq and risk their lives under continuous threats, a few hours of brisk cold were a small price to pay to show our appreciation. After arriving at the plant, I found George Young, who I had met at the Open House a couple weeks prior and who had invited me to participate. All of us know people like George; friendly, outgoing and always ready with a joke. He introduced me to the ride captain and ERA President, Brian Hargrove, who at the time was busy finishing installation of flag holders on his Road King and on a Road Glide for friend and fellow ERA member, Chad. Before departing, the group gathered for a few pictures and we were off.
We rode south until we reached I-70 and then proceeded west. Shortly after starting our journey, I began experiencing problems as my throttle would not spring return to its idle position; a concern that I was reminded of with each slight change in speed during the next 180 miles. We stopped in west Topeka for fuel and to warm up a bit and then it was back down the road where my throttle problem got progressively worse.
The plan was for the ERA riders to meet riders from City Cycle Sales in downtown Junction City, then travel from there to the base as one group. Upon our arrival at the dealership, we were treated to biscuits and gravy, hot coffee and juice. Perfect! I helped myself to a plate and then proceeded to investigate resolution of my throttle problem. After discussions with Scott in parts, I rolled my bike into the shop and Senior Mechanic Dean, took a look. He found frayed strands at the top of the pull cable that needed to be replaced. Bad news, the proper length of cable was not available. In the meantime, both the Junction City group and the ERA group had mounted up, started up and were ready to head to the base. I informed Brian that I thought the group should continue on. Brian, a quiet and focused man is all about business. His reply, short and sure was, “We’re not leaving anyone behind.”
To condense this story, a new shorter cable was found that would work on an interim basis. Shop mechanic Jeremy installed it and we were ready to go. The situation had both disappointed and obviously embarrassed me, but Brian’s principled position gave me reassurance. Having just met this group, for them to delay their departure on my behalf, gave me some recognition of the privileges of commitment and good company. This was the beginning of something I would see in a different way throughout the day. Special thanks to Dean, Jeremy, Scott and owner Honey Grant from City Cycle Sales, a great group of people who certainly saved my day and did so with a level of unmatched customer service.
We left City Cycle Sales and weaved east through several residential streets of Junction City and then a brief stint back on the highway before arriving at the base checkpoint. Following processing through their security procedures, we rode through the old base grounds towards the celebration area. Since Fort Riley was established in 1853, it has its own significant heritage in the history of America’s battles. As our group traveled through, we passed families and friends of troops everywhere. There were newborns and grandparents, young mothers and toddlers. From preschool to high school, relatives and acquaintances of re-deployed soldiers were present to celebrate and honor the return of these veterans. Of the approximate 3,500 troops deployed from Fort Riley to Iraq, nearly 3,400 had arrived home during the few weeks prior to October 2, and the last 100 were due back any day. Recognition of my own privileged life grew with each passing smiling face. I was reminded that these people had learned to cope with the extended absence of their father, mother, son or daughter. They had lived with the daily threat of their relative being injured or worse yet, potentially not returning home. But today, they were smiling!
We rumbled through the base, gathering waves from many of the families and staff present and were then guided to a designated area in a park like setting. As I began removing the various layers of clothing that had kept me warm, I was approached by Major Karl S. Ivey, my media escort. A friendly and knowledgeable man, Major Ivey discussed the activities on the agenda. Many were underway in the immediate area, including; a petting zoo, square dancing, home-made pie sales and other exhibitions. We hopped into his waiting golf cart and headed away from the central celebration area, with plans to return soon.
Our first stop was the Test Firing Range, set up on a nearby football field. There were about 15 parallel shooting stations in place, with various types of guns. Military staffers were present to assist the lines of children and adults with the proper procedures for firing these weapons. The guns all utilized a laser device attached to their barrels, while laser receiving targets were posted in the field at different distances. Each blank fired from the rifles initiated a laser beam and if your aim was good, the targets received the laser beam, fell and then slowly returned upright. The weapon of choice was the 240B machine gun. These guns are capable of firing an amazing 650 to 1000 rounds per minute, creating a very unique sound that Major Ivey referred to as ‘the sound of freedom.’ Sergeant Brian Williams assisted me with firing a 240-nine, the older version of the 240B. Not having any prior exposure to automatic weapons, squeezing the trigger on this was an experience I was grateful for, particularly considering that I was firing blanks at laser targets and not live bullets at an enemy.
From the firing range, we went to the Children’s Obstacle course, designed to create physical challenges for preschool and elementary aged kids. Before starting, each child received personalized attention from assisting soldiers. Their faces were painted with black face and then turned loose. Included in the course was a low crawl, a wall, a rope swing, a maze called the weave and a set of zigzagged balance beams. Upon completion, each child was provided with a small medal, commemorating the day’s events. I’m confident that parents appreciated the personalized attention their children were receiving, not to mention the prospect of them burning off energy.
Leaving the obstacle course and heading back to the central celebration, we passed through a neighborhood of aged large homes with cut, white stone exteriors, all occupied by ranking base officials. The style of the homes and the huge trees were reminders of the age of this base; over one and one-half centuries old. According to Major Ivey, it is a unique residential area, with homes of unparalleled sizes when compared with that of any other military base.
We returned to the celebration area just in time to witness the crowd favorite of the day, the Mounted Calvary demonstration. The Fort Riley Calvary group is one of a few remaining of its kind and was a national award winner in recent competition. Sergeant Gabriel Lincoln and his staff put on an educational and impressive exhibition of hand to hand battle tactics used during the 1850’s. Outfitted in authentic uniforms, the crowd was first provided detailed explanations of the weapons, living conditions and duties of Calvary soldiers. Next, six men performed displays of agility and skill by running the horses in differing patterns, leaping over obstacles and firing hand guns at targets simultaneously with great accuracy. This was followed by soldiers on horseback, with sabers drawn charging head on to the middle of the arena, where they displayed their fencing skills with fierce exchanges. Another entertaining demonstration involved the Calvary charging one at a time towards each other with sabers drawn. The first stabbed a red painted milk jug, proceeded forward with the jug speared on the end of the sword, then handed it off to the next rider who stuck the jug, rode forward and handed it off again. It was a very realistic and moving demonstration that was as frightening as it was informative. Their sabers and handguns were authentic and the demonstration is not without risk.
Perhaps my most impressionable encounter of the day was with Master Gunner Josh Wilson. Following our introduction, Josh began explaining his role and referred to me as ‘Sir’ repeatedly, demonstrating his disciplined training. I felt it important that I tell him that it was I who owed him this level of respect and his delivery softened a bit. He spent time describing in detail his responsibilities for the entire armory battalion. This included hand guns, grenades, rifles and machine guns, and their required ammunition inventories as well as mortars and tank artillery. No doubt about it, Josh knows his weapons! As a 26 year old with six and a half years of experience, the significance of his position is not to be taken lightly. He clearly understands it, was not intimidated by it whatsoever and was extremely professional in explaining it. Recognizing the qualifications of this position, I again felt privileged that Josh, in spite of his youth, was willing to accept the challenge of his role and is fully prepared to effectively carry out his duties.
Prior to departing, I had one last opportunity to further expand my appreciation and perspective. In this case, I got to shake the hand of Tech Sergeant Jerry Campbell and briefly discuss his job. To comprehend this role, one must first understand that no air strike takes place without eyes and ears on the ground, in the danger zone, verifying the target for that small window of opportunity when the air strike must occur. Jerry’s role is to be those eyes and ears. I would expect that any profession this close to such danger wouldn’t get volunteers and the pay certainly doesn’t compare with any risk standards established in a free enterprise. But Jerry demonstrated to me what being a soldier is all about. His disposition was amazingly positive and the pride of his role was evident. He had completed one tour, but was likely returning near term to Iraq for another. He did not give even the slightest hint of displeasure in going back.
Prior to our arrival at the base that morning, a ceremony had been held for a new monument which was dedicated to fallen soldiers from Fort Riley since the beginning of the Global War on terrorism. Major Ivey conveyed the following information regarding this new monument: “It is made of grey and black polished marble. The base is a circular grey marble with a representation of the 'Twin Towers' made of black marble positioned on top of the base. The towers have an inscription as well as the names of the current fallen soldiers from Fort Riley units. The creator of such a piece of work obviously, however, sadly has left room for additional names should more need to be added. The ceremony was very well done in the greatest of U.S. Army tradition and the monument is a real centerpiece of remembrance for us here at Fort Riley and Kansas as a whole.”
Overall, the event planning was excellent. It had effectively catered to the needs of all participants and groups took full advantage. It also did a great job of providing new insight to people like me who are far removed from the burdens of managing people and equipment intended for battle. My thanks to Major Ivey. He likely didn’t expect someone as uninformed in the methods of the military as myself, but clearly displayed patience throughout the day, educating me on many different subjects. I meant to visit with many more soldiers and further expand my perspective from their experiences, but our group was departing and due to Bryan’s earlier commitment to me, I felt it important to keep up my end of that loyalty. By late afternoon, with temperatures now in the upper 60’s, our return trip on I-70 was much more comfortable. Traveling across the northern edge of the Flint Hills is something many people don’t appreciate, but it has always appealed to me. These rolling hills with occasional rock ledges and scattered farms are a unique landscape with their own personality.
The ride home also gave me an opportunity to contemplate my experiences of the day. I had jumped at the opportunity to cover this event. I wanted to shake the hands of those who had served and to share my heartfelt gratitude for their personal sacrifices. Having seen the Calvary demonstration, fired a machine gun and shook hands with many soldiers, my appreciation and respect for military professionals and their responsibilities gained amazing new perspective. I also had not thought about the variety of specialization required to do battle in today’s world and I simply had not considered before on such a personal level, the circumstances of being away from my family for extended periods, particularly with the risks of those circumstances.
Interestingly enough, when I looked up privilege in the dictionary, three words appeared below its definition: Freedom (n) Honor (n) and Favor (v.) Our freedoms are a distinct privilege and certainly something that is much too easy to take for granted. Honor was continually displayed by these troops in their commitment to their professions. It was also reciprocated to them from the droves of people present to celebrate their contributions and return home. Favor is that, which we all owe to those who fight on our behalf. After my experiences at the Open House, I now understand and appreciate privilege, and forever more am indebted.
Story and photos by Nic