The Illinois Freedom Run this Saturday, June 21st is one of the biggest and best motorcycle runs and patriotic events in the country. Beginning at the Grundy County Fairgrounds at 10:15am, the run fills Route 15 south of I-80 into Marsellies, ending at the Middle East Conflicts War Memorial on the banks of the Illinois River. It is Rolling Thunder in America's heartland.
While billed as a motorcycle run, the event, day and site are about a whole lot more. The Wall has been upgraded to include two more panels, and the site has added a viewing area on the south side of the Memorial. A piece of the Pentagon from the 9/11 attack that started these wars has also had a permanent display case installed. All of this has been accomplished with donations and by volunteers who wanted to honor this latest generation of our nation’s heroes.
The town of Marsellies is expected to go from a population of a little over 5,000 to about 50,000 for the day. After the 1:00pm ceremony at the Wall, the Freedom Fest begins in earnest. There are booths with everything you can think of made of leather, patriotic vendors, food and of course, music. But none of this is the real draw for most Gold Star families.
This site, the Wall, and the Run were begun as a way to promise those families who lost someone in service to our country that their loved one’s sacrifice would not be forgotten. Waiting for the Federal government to build a memorial was simply not an option. Seeing that more than a decade later, we are still at war this foresight is deeply appreciated.
Still, none of these are the reasons I will be there this Saturday. Granted, there is something incredible about seeing tens of thousands of motorcycles converge on a sleepy little town in honor of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Watching bearded guys in leather vests stand and salute, with tears in their eyes as the names are read is touching. Knowing that thousands upon thousands come, simply to honor and remember is moving. Being in the midst of all those who have sworn their own, personal oaths to insure the sacrifices made for their freedoms is remembered is a feeling that can’t be described, only experienced.
My son’s name is on that Wall, a sight that breaks me every time I see it. In part, that is because of how I became aware of this incredible Memorial.
The weekend my son arrived at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, I went down to visit him. On the way there, I noticed the signs on I-80 for this Memorial, but didn’t know what it was. On the way home from seeing my son settle into Army life, filled with pride that he had embarked on the future he chose, I stopped at that Wall. I remember thinking, what a beautiful place it was, but the setting didn’t account for the feeling of peace that overwhelmed me.
I was very aware that some of the boys I’d just met may one day have their names inscribed on these stones. Knowing they would be remembered was a comfort, and I prayed it was a solace for the broken hearts behind each of those names. I never thought, not then or even while my son was in Afghanistan that his name would be etched in white on those solid black panels. The idea never entered my mind that the peace and comfort I prayed would find those other families was a mercy I would someday need.
Three and a half years after the death of my son, I understand how inadequate this small solace is to my heart. Then, I think how utterly bereft I would be without this Memorial, this reminder, this sacred space blessed with the tears of loved ones and strangers.
Follow the links below for more information. I hope to see you there. I’ll be the one smiling and crying. Then again, I won’t be the only one.
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