On sacred ground - 2011

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A heartfelt ride to remember
by Tim Anderson


The Cripple Creek/Victor Region of Colorado has been known as many things during its rich history: From the Pikes Peak gold field to Boomtown; from the largest and richest city in Colorado to ghost town; and from quaint mountain village to gambling Mecca. 

Now this tiny town beneath the west side of Pike’s Peak has a new identity, at least for three days a year – sacred ground.

Like so many times before, hordes of bikers and military veterans on motorcycles rumbled” along Colorado Highway 67 into Cripple Creek for the 19th annual Salute to American Veterans Rally & Festival. Winding through the mountain curves they brought with them a feeling and expectation of calm, respect and goodwill – and a desire for a little fun. 

SAV11-Tim-Anderson 17As the seemingly endless line of bikes poured into Cripple Creek, the little valley that is home to this town with so much history noticeably filled with a new energy – an aura if you will. A different feeling filled the valley, and riding out of the still green aspen down the hill into Cripple Creek, riders became immersed in that feeling. 

It was an intangible feeling that’s tough to explain, but part of what makes this weekend what it is. Even with thousands of thundering motorcycles, and the few thousand more people welcoming them, there was a comfortable calm that permeated everything. “It’s one of those things that’s hard to put your finger on,” said Jim Wear, event promoter. 

“It’s like we’ve succeeded in making Cripple Creek sacred ground for veterans. It’s not what we set out to do, it was never our goal. but that’s kind of what happened. There’s no question that it’s the people who come to this event who have made it what it is.”

This year, more than 66,000 people made the event what it was. “That’s almost twice what we had last year,” Wear said. “I thought attendance was up, but I didn’t expect that. It’s great.” The 2010 rally saw about 35,000 people after returning to Cripple Creek from a three-year stint in Winter Park, Colorado. 

bikes-in-a-rowOne of the highlights of the rally again this year was the arrival of the 24th annual POW/MIA Recognition Ride after the Veterans Parade. A line of bikes over a few miles long rolled into town and was greeted by thousands of onlookers. Wear said, “We had 1,500 registered bikes on the ride, and we had to stop registration with 200 or more people waiting in line so we could get started. Then, leaving Woodland Park, the streets were lined with people waiting for the ride to come by so they could join. So we had 2,000 to 3,000 bikes roll into town – and we already had at least 3,500 motorcycles in town before the ride came in. It takes us the better part of an hour to get everyone parked and it’s always the biggest thing we have to plan for, but everyone loves it and the riders are real good about being patient and just enjoying the moment.” 

Once the ride was parked, the Remembrance Ceremony in City Park got underway. A series of speakers and performers, including the tolling of a bell as the names of each service member lost in the recent Chinook shoot-down in Afghanistan were read aloud, Made up much of the ceremony. Surviving World War 11, Korea and Vietnam POWs were present and recognized. Also sitting front and center were three wounded warriors from the 4th Infantry Division at nearby Fort Carson. Staff Sgt. Jeremy Zimmerman, Specialist Matthew Birr and Specialist Brandon Rethmel were all seriously wounded; Zimmerman in Iraq and Birr and Rethmel in Afghanistan. As the stories of their wounding were read, much of the crowd sat dumbfounded. Zimmerman now has limited use of his right arm and has learned to function left-handed. Birr survived an AK-47 round to the back of his head. which exited above his right eye. Rethmel lost a portion of his intestine, his left leg below the knee and suffered additional shrapnel injuries in a rocket attack. All three are still serving at Fort Carson. 

After addressing the crowd, Colonel Michael Kasales, Commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson (which returned from Iraq earlier this spring) was introduced as the fourth wounded warrior.

 SAV11-Tim-Anderson 42“Bady” (short for “Badass”), an eight-year-old Belgian Malinois that served seven years in Afghanistan, was then brought forward. Trained as a patrol dog to find explosives (IEDs), Bady’s paw was wounded during a mission that killed his handler. Eventually, this Airborne Special Forces veteran lost his left rear leg as a result of the wound and is now retired and looking for a forever home. With approval from the Army, Colonel Kasales presented Bady with the Army’s Combat Action Badge to a raucous and heartfelt approval from the large collection of veterans and supporters in attendance. After his recognition, there were over 100 formal applications to Wild Blue Animal Rescue & Sanctuary to adopt him, including one from Colonel Kasales. Bady is sure to have a loving forever home soon and may have been the most popular vet of the weekend.

After the ceremony, the festivities in Cripple Creek kicked into high gear. A series of bands rocked the town, vendors did brisk business and the good times were on – even over in tiny Victor, where the Battle Mountain Motorcycle Pageant took place on Main Street with a fine collection of custom bikes on display. 

One thing I noticed is that there was a noticeable absence of official military participation this year. “Military resources are going to operations and training,” Wear explained. “People sometimes forget our country is at war, and we have a lot of resources committed. It’s completely understandable that those operations take priority. Would it be nice to have some hardware and maybe a fly-over like we’ve had in the past? Sure, but I think most of us would rather keep our troops supplied and strong than have a day of looking at military equipment. Plus we had guys from the 43rd Sustainment Brigade and a Humvee here, and we had a privately-owned MIG 21 fly-over. It’s completely understandable, and we’re not disappointed at all. This is about the people anyway, not so much the gear.” 

Just looking around it was obvious that it was about the people and camaraderie. “It was awesome,” Colonel Kasales said. “I rode up in the POW Ride behind the color guard with 22 other invited military members. Almost as soon as we got to Cripple Creek I could tell this was a different event. Now that I spent the weekend here, I have to say it is different. It’s one of the best events like this I’ve been to. The hospitality from the people of Cripple Creek is incredible.” 

“You could tell this is a heartfelt, earnest and honest event,” Kasales continues. “It was relaxed, fun and I had a great time. I was walking down the street and had soldiers shouting at me, ‘Hey Colonel – iron strong!’ which is kind of our motto. It’s awesome that my soldiers were relaxed and comfortable and shouting out to me. It just added to the feeling.”

SAV11-Pro 0090The rally continues to grow on its own. The city began a second ceremony honoring fallen local soldiers in 2010 on Sunday of the rally. Names are carved into a wall at the Cripple Creek War Memorial near the· Mt. Pisagah Cemetery. In 2011 the names of 52 servicemen from the local area who were killed over the past 12 months were added to the wall. It has become quite a ceremony in itself. 

SAV11-Pro 0111There are the odd stories too. Two Marines passed each other on the sidewalk on Bennett Avenue, one spotted the other’s unit patch, and stopped to talk to him, as he too had served in that unit. It turned out the two had served in the same platoon in Vietnam in 1969 and hadn’t seen each other since then – it just took them a minute to recognize each other. It was an emotional reunion on the sidewalk to be sure, moving those who witnessed it to wipe away the stray tear and feel the shiver of emotion wriggle up their backs.

The scene was replayed repeatedly all weekend, perhaps not with as dramatic story lines, but warm and genuine nonetheless. “That’s what it’s all about,” said Wear. “Making that connection and having a good time. That’s one reason why we added the street dance this year on Saturday night. People don’t want to leave if they can help it. With the street dance, we had people dancing and parting and having a good time into the night.” 

“This was a lot of fun,” Kasales said “My wife and I were dancing and haying a great time with everyone all night. I don’t think there was even an uncomfortable moment all weekend. This is exactly the kind of event that boosts morale ana brings older veterans, our young soldiers and the people who appreciate them all together. I’ve been to veterans’ events all over the country and Cripple Creek is one of the best. The hospitality, the comfort level – everything was incredible.” 

Of course, the city had a lot to do with that. “This year the city really stepped up,” Wear said. “In spite of the necessary reduction in the budget and a few other limitations, the city and people of Cripple Creek did absolutely everything that had to be done to make this a success. We’ve never seen this kind of support before, and I think it really showed in the kind of weekend we had.” 

Of course, it’s only natural Cripple Creek stepped up. It’s not just a historic mining town or a collection of casinos, or even home to the Veteran’s Rally. For one weekend a year, it’s sacred ground.

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 October 2015 14:44