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‘Riding for those who can’t’

Rod Runyon, above, is shown in California after escorting a “Fallen Heroes” cart there from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He then joined “Run for the Wall,” a coast-to-coast journey to honor fallen warriors, those held prisoner and others who went missing.
Contributed photos

Rod Runyon, above, is shown in California after escorting a “Fallen Heroes” cart there from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He then joined “Run for the Wall,” a coast-to-coast journey to honor fallen warriors, those held prisoner and others who went missing. Contributed photos

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Alaska Airlines employees have created “Fallen Hero” carts, shown above, to transfer the remains of fallen warriors that have been escorted across the country by “Run for the Wall” participants to raise public awareness about service and sacrifice. Contributed photo

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Santa Ed Holterman, center, gives the morning history lesson and safety briefing before riders take off for the day’s journey. Contributed photo

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Students at Montvale Elementary School in Virginia greet bikers during one of the last stops before the group, which numbered 400 by the time it rolled into Arlington, Va., joined “Rolling Thunder,” a Memorial Day ride on May 29 through downtown Washington, D.C. Contributed photos

Rod Runyon of The Dalles arrived in Arlington, Va., on Friday, completing a ride across America with “Run for the Wall” to honor military families.

“It’s a bucket list thing for sure,” he said of the trip that left him physically and exhausted and emotionally frayed, but with an even deeper respect for the meaning of service and sacrifice.

Runyon, the Northeast District ride captain for the Patriot Guard Riders, was joined on the first leg of the journey by fellow bikers Jim Smith of The Dalles and Bob Canavan of Dallesport.

The three men travelled May 12 to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to take on duties as “road sentinels” for transport of a specialized “Fallen Heroes” cart.

Alaska Airlines made the carts with blue paint, red carpet and American flag curtains to carry the remains of deceased service members to their final resting place.

One of these carts was escorted by bikers to Ontario, Calif., where it was turned over to organizers of “Run for the Wall” (RFTW), which has organized a coast-to-coast trip for 28 years to honor warriors held captive, those missing and those who fell in battle.

Canavan and Smith returned to the gorge as Runyon set out May 18 on the southern route of the expedition with the theme “We Ride for Those Who Can’t.”

The bikers on three routes were headed to Washington, D.C., to participate in “Rolling Thunder,” on Sunday, May 29. That event draws almost one million bikers and involves a Memorial Day ride through streets around the National Mall.

Following are highlights from Runyon’s journey as told to a Chronicle reporter or posted on his Facebook page.

Cart escort

May 12: A bee flew into my helmet and wandered around for a bit until I could get stopped. Bob gave him a proper burial.

May 13: We took off on time from SeaTac heading south with about 40 bikes. At each stop we would gain some bikes and others would head home. Stopped in Canyonville, a distance of 376 miles.

May 14: I met a veteran who had been a door gunner in Vietnam who wouldn’t even tell anyone that he had served until a couple of years ago, when he decided it was time to visit The Wall in D.C.

Two of his friends showed up there and told him that they were going to stand beside him “until you forgive yourself.” It was about an hour before he could walk away and he felt a load had been lifted.

Santa Ed Holterman, one of the PGR members, has honored military families by going on more than 1,000 missions. This is his sixth RFTW ride because he feels that strongly about the cause.

I am meeting so many people that have these types of attachments, they have family that’s been affected by war, they have passion. Amazing bonds are getting formed.

Stopped in Corning, Calif., a distance of 265 miles.

May 15: A couple hundred people blocked an intersection at Woodland, Calif., and were standing by the road waving flags when we went through.

I got to be part of the Missing Man formation in front of the cart and that was an honor. That formation involves five bikes, with a space on the left side to symbolize the soldier who did not return from battle. It is customary to put the rear pegs on the bike down so if that person’s spirit wanted to ride with it, it can!

I have also gotten to be one of the “outriders,” the four guys riding side-by-side directly behind the cart. We have to keep on schedule, which is set to avoid rush hour in cities.

The cart is uncovered at every stop so people can see the colors and what’s inside.

We got stopped by the California Highway Patrol today because we were traveling in the passing lane and all 57 bikes and the cart had to pull over. We told the officer that the reason we were in that lane was to avoid potential collisions with trucks and cars coming down on-ramps — and there are ramps everywhere.

We were going 60 miles per hour though and the speed limit is 70...

Arrived in Vasalia, Calif., a distance of 327 miles.

May 16: It can be dangerous traveling with this many bikers. We ride about two seconds apart and try to shift down instead of braking to avoid a “yo-yo” effect of movement.

There’s no sightseeing while you’re on the road — you can’t be looking at cows or checking out birds, you’ve got to be watching out or you’re going to die. A veteran who calls himself “Creature” came from Birmingham, Ala., to SeaTac so he could escort the cart past his hometown back to D.C.

Made it to Ontario, Calif., a 185-mile ride, to end the first phase of the journey.

Off to D.C.

May 18: Day one of “Run for the Wall.” A 335-mile leg to Phoenix, Ariz. I think the entire community of Blythe, Calif., turned out to greet us. They fed us and presented a program.

I met a woman named Pam whose dad was shot down over Vietnam when she was 12.

The family knew that he was alive when he ejected from the plane and then taken prisoner. That’s the last they ever heard of him.

Another man had a brother go missing in action 40 years ago in Vietnam.

I’ve met hardened combat veterans who are sharing their stories; this is a healing process for them, which is part of the mission.

People along the way are so quick to pay their respects for that service. Every overpass has at least one person on it, and some have more than 100 people, and they are waving flags and cheering us on.

We have been told to just put our hand up and wave, but not look up, so that we can stay safe. Volunteers have meals waiting at every stop.

We have people regularly picking up the bill for fuel and it’s clear to us that this is about something much bigger than just a group of people riding across the country.

May 19: We had a state patrol escort and we were suddenly stopped before leaving a fuel lot.

We were told that there was a high speed pursuit going on the freeway and they held us back for our safety. When we did go, a half hour later, police escorted us all the way to Las Cruces N. M., a 390-mile trip.

Our escort of six motorcycle cops zipped ahead when we got near to the Mexico/Texas border and they were standing by their bikes saluting as we came through. It’s just overwhelming sometimes.

Highlights of the day included being chosen as one of six to provide the honor guard for wreath laying ceremony.

I also saw a one- armed vet standing alone on an overpass in the middle of nowhere, holding a flag in his one hand.

May 20: This journey is a total immersion in patriotism. Everywhere we go people are waiting to provide us with fuel and food. Three hundred and twenty nine miles this day to reach Odessa, Texas.

May 21: Arrived in Grand Prairie, Texas, a distance of 341 miles, for dinner and a speech by U.S. Air Force Colonel (ret.) Ken Cordier.

The plane he was flying on, one of 175 missions in Vietnam, was shot down in 1966 and he was captured after ejecting and held in four different prisons in and around Hanoi until his release in 1973.

He returned to the states and military duties, which were followed by a highly distinguished career, which included writing aviation books and serving in leadership positions with several veterans’ organizations.

Col. Cordier made two trips back to Vietnam in his civilian life; on the second, he led a group of 13 former POWs to visit several of the prisons where they were held, which helped bring them closure.

His story was powerful and he had a lot to say about the harm done by rules of engagement that prohibit our troops from winning their battles. He also had a lot to say about Jane Fonda and media coverage of the war, none of it good.

May 22: We stopped for the night in Monroe, La., after a 296-mile trip.

Nella Calloway, the granddaughter of General Claire Lee Chennault, who commanded the Flying Tigers, gave the motivational message tonight.

There were three fighter squadrons of about 30 aircraft each in the Tigers that trained in Burma before American entry into World War II. Their mission was to defend China against Japanese forces and these pilots are credited with destroying 296 enemy aircraft.

I spoke to Calloway afterward about my friendship with the late Ken Jernstedt, a state senator from Oregon who lived in Hood River and was in the Flying Tigers.

She knew immediately who he was and said there are only three left, one living in Monroe.

To come all this way and have that connection… it’s the kind of stuff that’s made this trip so memorable.

May 23: I was told this morning that if I thought patriotism in Louisiana was exceptional that it would only be exceeded by Mississippi. Blackhawks and Huey’s met us at the state line.

Not only did the state patrol close the freeway and put traffic behind us (our footprint is now five miles long) they brought us to a complete stop near Jackson so a filmmaker could shoot from an overpass. A field next to the freeway was lined with cannons. When they began firing it was amazing. Stopped in Meredian, Miss., a 209-mile ride.

May 24: This morning we laid a wreath at Silverdale, a hospital cemetery of the Confederacy. General Braxton Bragg was in charge of the Tennessee volunteers in 1862. These too are American warriors.

Run for the Wall took Silverdale on as a project in 2010 because the cemetery was overgrown and there were 150 unmarked graves.

So far, remains in nine of the graves have been identified and their families provided with closure. Every war has their MIAs. The Civil War was no different.

Our southern route group donated around $2,000 to that cause this morning. Two hundred and ninety-two miles to Chattanooga, Tenn.

May 25: Memorial Day is more than barbecues and the start of summer. Every day of the year is Memorial Day for many. The charm of the southern people and their patriotism is so amazing. Wytheville, Va., a distance of 291 miles.

May 26: We visited Montvale Elementary School today and it was amazing to see the patriotism of the students, who lined up with flags to greet us.

We all helped RFTW raise $4,000 to give to schools during this trip. I was honored to be asked to be in the Missing Man slot at the front of the pack during today’s ride.

The officers who make up the other four spots asked if I was riding for someone.

I said yes, Darrel Kanehe, an Army veteran who was my friend of 46 years, going back to Fort Sheridan Ill., where I was a civilian working on base. He died of cancer last year. I am also riding for my father, Col. Jerrold Runyon and my father-in-law Clyde Blaisdell.

We visited the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., the community that suffered the highest losses per capita in the nation during the invasion on June 6, 1944.

The memorial recreates the storming of the beaches of Normandy and it really brings the deaths of 4,413 soldiers home. So much has been given... Lynchburg, Va., 133 miles.

May 27: Four hundred of us FNGs (Funny New Guys) will be chosen to ride into Arlington National Cemetery and I hope to be one of them.

I have been given the names of graves to visit by people along the way. That will be an incredible end to this journey.

“Chicken” Joe Connor was the coordinator for our southern route and he organized 600 volunteers to make sure that everything was taken care of at every stop.

The support by so many Americans has been humbling. Lynchburg to Arlington, Va. 175 miles.

“Until you experience this ride, it’s really hard to imagine what all goes into it and all the emotions involved,” said Runyon in a summary of the trip.

He chairs the Wasco County Commission and co-chairs the Veterans Committee of the Oregon Association of Counties.

Runyon said his RFTW experience has strengthened his resolve to be an advocate of military families in whatever way that he can as an elected official.

“I have the ability to open some doors,” he said.

“This has not been about me, it’s been about honoring our veterans and there are so many stories out there. It’s hard to hear a lot of them but I’m forever changed because I did.”

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