HIGHLAND — More than 2,000 bikers — many decorated with American flags and other patriotic gear — revved their engines as they took off Sunday from Wicker Memorial Park for the 19th annual Victory for Veterans Memorial Ride.
The popular fundraiser draws so many people each year that North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan has to cap the participation at 2,200 for safety reasons.
The event’s nearly two-decade legacy is evident in the time it took for all the motorcycles to finally leave through the park’s exit — about 30 minutes — to embark on the ride.
“There are individuals who have sacrificed their time, blood, sweat, tears for our freedoms and today, we ride to recognize those individuals,” Mrvan said to the crowd gathered at Wicker Park.
The police-escorted 27-mile trek began at 11:30 a.m. at the park, taking riders to Calumet Avenue south, then U.S. 30 east before heading north on Taft/Cleveland and back toward Ridge Road to make a return loop to Wicker Park’s main gate.
Mrvan said the event raised anywhere between $30,000 and $40,000 or more, based on the number of participants and donations. Proceeds will benefit homeless veterans and the Wicker Park Veterans Memorial enhancements.
The ride is a partnership between the North Township trustee’s office and the American Veterans Motorcycle Riders Association. Hundreds of AVMRA members received cheers and applause at Sunday’s event for their unwavering support to veterans' causes.
Jarrett Hunt, a 41-year-old veteran from Merrillville with 20 years of military service who requires a PTSD service dog, said he was floored when one of AVMRA’s members friended him at last year’s Victory for Veterans event.
The veteran offered to buy him a motorcycle sidecar for his service dog, Mutt, and repair and repaint his Harley Davidson.
“He brought me to tears. I was ready to give up on riding,” Hunt said.
Though Hunt was unable to ride in this year’s event, he sat on the sidelines this year to cheer his fellow veterans on.
“I'm hoping by next season, I’ll be riding with Mutt,” Hunt said.
Hunt said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from an exploding IED that left him with memory loss, migraines and other symptoms.
His dog Mutt, a mastiff, wakes him during night terrors, senses stressful situations and serves as a buffer between large crowds and Hunt in public.
He said it took him years to get the help he needed from the VA. That’s why he attends veterans events like this one — to show support, and share his own story with his fellow brothers and sisters in service.
“When I hit rock bottom in 2013, it was because I didn’t talk. You have to be able to admit you’re broken, and not in a defeatist way. It’s not a sign of weakness,” Hunt said.
Gold Star mothers and fathers like Andrew and Patti Nowaczyk, of Dyer, were also in attendance. They said their son, David, was killed at the age of 33 while serving in Afghanistan in April 2012 when an improvised explosive device went off.
“After 9/11, he was determined (to serve),” Andrew Nowaczyk said.
The Gold Star mother and father passed out lanyards of local fallen soldiers to riders on Saturday in exchange for donations, all to raise funds for a granite monument in Central Park in Dyer to honor Gold Star families and veterans.
Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation is working with them to raise the funds.
At the end of the ride, participants return the lanyards, so the Nowaczyk family can mail them out to all the families of fallen soldiers.
“And the families learn that their sons, their daughters are not forgotten. And that’s because of you,” Andrew Nowaczyk said to the crowd.
Vanessa Winterstein, of Tinley Park, rode on the back of her boyfriend’s Harley during the 27-mile Victory for Veterans ride. This was her first year participating in the event.
As she and her boyfriend, Don Dombrowski, passed over a bridge on U.S. 30, the breathtaking view of the sea of motorcycles was overwhelming and a particularly strong memory rushed back to her, she said.
“It reminded me of Lackland (Air Force Base) for my son’s graduation from basic training,” Winterstein said.
“For some reason, it just brought it all back. And it made me realize why I do this. It reinforced everything. It's an honor to be a part of something like this, for an entire nation of veterans, for those still here and for those who have lost their lives.”