Organizer: Winter Park Veterans Rally expected to draw 20,000-30,000 visitors |

Organizer: Winter Park Veterans Rally expected to draw 20,000-30,000 visitors

Tonya BinaSky-Hi Daily NewsGrand County, Colorado

Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News

Danny Barton of Lakewood is about to attend the 2009 Salute to Americans Veterans Rally and Festival for the ninth year this weekend.As a photographer, he likes to photograph military aircraft landing in the ballfield where the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands. But as a Marine, named Marine of the Year at Naval Weapons Station Earle Navy base in New Jersey during his service from 1975 to 1979, Barton rides a Harley Davidson during the festivities in honor of the “men and women who have served selflessly in America’s military,” he said. “I get to interact with people who are my heroes. Military dignitaries, high-ranking heroes, people who are in my eyes the bravest people and most selfless people who walk on the face of the planet,” Barton said.This year’s “high-ranking hero” and keynote speaker for the Rally’s 22nd Annual POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony will be Vietnam Veteran and United States Air Force Pilot Brigadier General Steve Ritchie. Ritchie became the United States Air Force’s first and only pilot ace of the Vietnam War. He was assigned to the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing in Thailand, flying F-4 Phantom IIs with the famed 555th (“Triple Nickel”) Tactical Fighter Squadron. All five of the aircraft he shot down were Mig-21s. After completing 339 combat missions totaling over 800 flying hours, Ritchie returned from his second combat tour as one of the most highly decorated pilots in the Vietnam War.”If somebody could only participate for one hour all weekend, (he or she) should come to the park at noon to see the ceremony,” said Veterans Rally event organizer Jim Wear of Pro-Promotions, Inc. Colorado rootsThe Americans Veterans Rally originally started in 1987 in Colorado Springs as a one-day motorcycle ride in honor of fallen soldiers, followed by a ceremony. The event then relocated to Cripple Creek where it remained for 14 years.Upon invitation from Winter Park leaders and the need for more space as the Rally’s popularity, size and scope grew, Wear moved the event to Winter Park three years ago. He expects this year’s three-day event to draw roughly 20,000 to 30,000 people to the Fraser Valley.Other VIP guests for the annual ceremony include United States Army Purple Heart recipient Matthew Kiel, Command Sgt. William Usry, and Command Senior Enlisted Leader of The North American Aerospace Defense Command-U.S. Northern Command and American ex-POW Lester Stroup.”I think that the (the Veteran’s Rally) is a good way for civilians who want to say thank you, but don’t always have an avenue to do that, to come down and say thanks,” said Tom Tarver of Monument. Entering his eighth year attending the American Veteran’s Rally, Tarver said he attends to honor both of his grandfathers, his father, both of his brothers, and his sons – all of whom served. His son and son-in-law in the Marines presently are on their third tour in Iraq. “A lot of men and women are fighting out there to keep me free,” Tarver said. “I feel like I owe them something. Some man or woman is going to die in combat protecting our freedoms, yet we live our lives, we go to the movies, we think about our next vacation. I want to make sure we honor them and respect them for that.”Supporting serviceOutside of taking part in the Rally, Tarver actively pursues ways to support military men and women in other ways. He is a board member for Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors, which helps families of fallen soldiers to transition back into civilian life; he is actively involved in Homes for Our Troops, which builds homes free to men and women who return severely injured from combat; and he spearheaded a bill that created the Colorado “Support the Troops” license plates. The bill passed, and the license plates have since raised $200,000 for the military men and women of Colorado.Supporting troops in resourceful ways also is a mission for Al “Sheriff” Longstaff of Little River, Kan.He and his wife have been attending the Rally seven years, and they are no stranger to motorcycles. As a member of the Kansas Legion Riders Patriot Guard, Longstaff along with 3,000 other Kansans volunteer to protect military funerals from outside interruptions – mainly protests by members of a fringe Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. What grew into a nationwide Patriot Guard Riders movement started as an original gathering founded by three individuals in Kansas, including Craig Hanson of Derby, Kansas – also a Rally attendee this year. “A lot of Vietnam vets, when they came home, they didn’t get the recognition they deserved,” said Longstaff, a Vietnam-era veteran who was permanently injured on duty during a 1978 missile accident in Rock, Kan. He arrived in Winter Park revved for the Rally on Wednesday.”This is a great event to honor all veterans,” he said.”In the ’80s, patriotism was at an all-time low,” said Wear, who has seen interest in the annual Veterans Rally expand since its earlier, more humble years.”We were doing this long before people flew flags. Civilians did not start honoring the military until after 9-11,” he said.The event has suffered recent challenges from dropped sponsorships affected by the economy, bad weather and sometimes competition with other events scheduled on the same weekend, but according to Wear, the Rally must go on.After all, he said, “Soldiers never quit when the weather gets bad. They overcome obstacles.”- Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail