St. C. welcomes veteran riders on Memorial Day
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Veteran bikers filled the Belmont County Courthouse Plaza for the second Memorial Day weekend when members of the Run for the Wall memorial ride made a stop Monday morning.
The public turned out to welcome them with flags waving, and city and county officials greeted riders from across the country.
The speaker was St. Clairsville native Lt. Col. Matthew Sabatino, U.S. Air Force, stationed in Washington D.C. He recognized veterans who undertook to “carry the torch for those left behind.”
“It’s an honor to see them ride from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. A three-day journey across the United States,” he said.
The trek will end Tuesday at the Middle East Conflicts memorial in Marseilles, Illinois. Sabatino said the veterans rode not only for the fallen, but also for prisoners of war and those missing in action and wounded in action.
“That’s why they ride. They carry the weight of those fallen service members, those men and women, on their shoulders and it’s a tremendous honor to be able to support them and come and speak,” he said.
Sabatino, a 2003 graduate of St. Clairsville High School, also commented on the local reception for the veterans.
“I’m honored to be able to come back to my hometown,” he said. “St. Clairsville’s a very proud town. We’re a resilient town, we’re a patriotic town. We’re a town of valor. … You see how many are enthusiastic, patriotic about remembering.”
During his talk, he referred to Sylvester Antolak, a St. Clairsville native and Medal of Honor recipient. On May 24, 1944, Antolak charged 200 yards over flat, coverless terrain near Cisterna di Littoria, Italy, into machine gun fire in order to destroy an enemy machine gun nest, giving his life in the process.
“We are duty-bound to instill an important lesson in the younger generation: In wartime, no one gets left behind or forgotten,” he said. “Keep their stories alive. Share them with your children and grandchildren.”
Kevin West of Bellaire and a member of Bellaire American Legion was among those riding escort into and out of town. He also had the opportunity to meet veterans from across the country.
“A lot of wonderful stories, a lot of veterans, especially Vietnam-era veterans. They were disrespected when they got back from serving their country. That ain’t how it’s supposed to be, so I tell them: ‘Welcome home. Thank you for your service.'”
Larry Barnes, commander of the St. Clairsville American Legion, welcomed the riders to the plaza and spoke about the importance of remembering the true meaning of Memorial Day.
“It’s up to each and every one of us to make sure that this day never ceases,” he said.
Route Coordinator Darin Koch thanked the city of St. Clairsville, the city police, Sheriff David Lucas, the Belmont County Tourism Council and the local Ohio State Highway Patrol. Afterward, he said about 225 riders stopped at St. Clairsville and hope to return next Memorial Day.
“The welcome is tremendous. The patriotism shown here is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s only the second year, but it’s grown from the first year.”
He spoke about the riders’ motivation.
“Everyone lives two lives and dies twice, once when their soul leaves their body and they depart this Earth, and another the last time somebody speaks their name. So say their name. Keep them alive. Say their name. Tell their story. This is why we ride.”
Cornell Penn, assistant coordinator, said they see the best side of the county.
“We get to see the patriots that come out just to remember why America’s so great,” he said.
Riders included Ron Doyle of the Salem area in Indiana, retired U.S. Navy chief, served 20 years and retired in 2000. For the ride, he carried photographs and biographies of three fallen servicemen: Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith who died in April 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Connor A. McQuagge, a gunner’s mate seaman who died in May 2016 during Operation Inherent Resolve, and Maxton W. Soviak, Navy corpsman and one of the 13 military personnel killed during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Doyle said all of their names are on the Middle East Conflicts memorial wall.
“They was in the service and they paid the ultimate price,” he said.
Ken Meredith of Tulsa, Oklahoma, formerly of the Navy from 1987-2007, rode for Capt. James Birchim, Special Forces, who died in November 1968. He came across Birchim’s KIA/MIA bracelet two years in a row and was able to speak with his family.
“I looked him up on the internet when I got home the first year,” he said. “My dad was a Vietnam veteran, ’67-’68, and after I retired I wanted someday to honor him and just join all the people who ride across, and that’s what I did in 2011.”
Among the chaplains traveling with them was Joey Leigh of Conway, South Carolina, a member of the Mission: M25 Ministries.
“It gives us the opportunity to sit around and talk with these guys on a one-on-one basis. We’re here in case they need some spiritual help along the way. We also take care of broke-down bikes, wrecks, anything like that,” he said.
St. Clairsville Mayor Kathryn Thalman and Belmont County Tourism Director Jackee Pugh also spoke.
“God bless you and godspeed on your trail,” Thalman said.
The St. Clairsville High School band performed.
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