Patriot Honor Ride for fallen heroes stops at Gillette Stadium

Gary West at Gillette Stadium. Photo by Eric J. Adler

As 59-year-old former Air Force Colonel Gary West pedaled through the beautiful and scenic route in Maine, one thought was going through his head.

“Oh my gosh. What have I done?”

To be sure, the ride through Vacationland was picture-perfect, but it was hilly — very hilly. Up until a few years ago, Gary didn’t even own a bike, but here he was on Day 3 of a 60-day journey from Lubec, Maine, to Key West, Fla., wondering how he got himself into this physically and mentally taxing trip.

But you’d just need to read the back of Gary’s red, white and blue shirt to understand exactly why he took on the challenge in the first place.

Gary, currently a pastor from Virginia, embarked on his “Patriot Honor Ride” on Aug. 1, during which he will ride his bicycle 2,500 miles to honor 16 fallen soldiers he has listed on his shirt, and raise money for their families through an organization called Folds of Honor, which provides scholarships and assistance to spouses and children of those killed or disabled while serving. The hope is to raise $60,000 for Folds of Honor and complete the journey in 60 days, ending on Oct. 1, Gary’s 60th birthday.

Robert Kraft meets Gary and Colette West. Photo by Eric J. Adler

In Washington, D.C. and the 15 states Gary passes, he will share the stories of these fallen heroes, meet their families and host flag folding ceremonies as his way of making sure the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice are never forgotten.

“I came home from three combat tours, and my children didn’t have to face growing up and going to school without a dad, and here in my senior years of life, I wanted to figure out some way to bless those who are still enduring the realities of war,” Gary said.

The idea came to Gary about three years ago — a bike ride along the East Coast to raise money and pay his respect. His wife, Colette, laughed when he finally found the courage to share what he had been thinking. The gesture was noble, but cycling thousands of miles seemed out of the realm of physical possibility for him.

Colette’s shock was echoed by Gary’s friends and family when he went public with his idea around this time last year, but he quickly silenced any doubt. Gary had spent the previous two years getting his body ready for the trip of a lifetime, mapping his route (including a stop at Gillette Stadium), and learning about the 16 families to whom he would dedicate his ride. His friend, Bronson Gambale, said that Gary had a “burning desire” to do something big to help.

Gary West wears the names of the 16 fallen soldiers he is honoring on his shirt. Photo by Eric J. Adler

When Gary was given the list of soldiers and their information, this desire only grew.

“It just puts flesh and blood on this idea. When the idea started, I didn’t have any real people in mind, and Folds of Honor, when they gave me the first list of names and I read their bios,” Gary said, fighting back tears. “It got real. For me, having a real name, a face to a family who doesn’t have a normal future, has had to overcome a lot, really has made what we’re doing more real, meaningful. Even though these families have already received scholarships, they represent to me thousands of other families that need our help and need not to be forgotten.”

As part of the ride, Gary and his crew chose a location to honor that state’s fallen hero or to perform a flag folding ceremony, like Ground Zero in New York City and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In Massachusetts, the choice was obvious for Gary.

“I mean, it’s called ‘Patriot Honor Ride.’ I’m going down Rt. 1. I’m scoping out all these places to go and looking at Google Earth and there’s this big, honking Patriot mascot staring me in the face. This is a no-brainer,” Gary said on August 8, Day 7 of his trip.

Though Gary considers himself a Peyton Manning fan, he and his crew enjoyed the Patriots’ joint practice with the Saints before presenting a flag on the sidelines with Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The flag folding ceremony in Massachusetts honored Navy Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator John Marcum, who was 34 when he was killed in action in Afghanistan.

Friends and family have offered to ride legs of the journey with Gary as encouragement and a chance to be a part of his cause. Bronson, originally from the Bay State, joined the Patriot Honor Ride from the end of Maine to Rhode Island. He and his wife have known Gary and Colette since they were teenagers, and as soon as he heard about Gary’s plans, he knew he needed to join.

Robert Kraft holds an American flag at Gillette Stadium with Gary and Colette West. Photo by Eric J. Adler

Being able to travel from town to town, averaging 50 miles a day, allows Gary and those riding with him to make connections with families of those he is honoring and to see just how warmly his mission is welcomed up and down the coast.

“I know that I’m very patriotic, but to see the level of reception everywhere we’ve been has really been rewarding to me personally,” Gary said. “Right now, I look at my country and it feels a little bit in a bad place. This has given me a lot of encouragement. There are some good Americans and flags everywhere. In Maine, just about every town was lined with flags. It’s terrific.”

And though the miles still stretch ahead of him — whether windy, mountainous roads or flat highways — Gary refuses to take the journey anything but one day at a time.

“My goal every day is to be able to get on the bike tomorrow,” he said.

The Patriot Honor Ride is set to finish in Key West with a birthday party and celebration for Gary. His family, friends, and supporters, whose doubts turned swiftly into encouragement, will be on hand to watch Gary complete a monumental journey to remind families who have been changed forever that they are not forgotten.

You can donate to Gary’s Patriot Honor Ride here. All proceeds benefit Folds of Honor.

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