A grueling 500-mile bicycle ride started 5:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, Sept. 26, in Springfield and 125 miles later at 4:30 p.m. the 35 riders were pulling into the National Guard armory on north Main Street, Paris.
The purpose of the Gold Star 500 is to honor Illinois residents killed while serving in the military and specifically those lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paris is home to the 1544th Transportation Company of the Illinois National Guard that lost five members while serving a deployment in Iraq.
Some of those participating in the ride are Guard veterans who knew the 1544th members.
Sgt. Major Michael Graves talked about Ivory Phipps of the Chicago area who served in another part of the battalion but volunteered to go when the 1544th was activated.
Graves said Phipps didn’t have to volunteer and didn’t have to be in the Guard having already retired from service.
“He said he rejoined because it was the right thing to do for the country and to set the right example for his son,” said Graves.
The memory of Paris native Sgt. Shawna Morrison was honored by Lt. Col. (ret) Eric Murray.
He said staff was impressed with Morrison, and he personally tried to convince her to accept a promotion that involved a position with battalion command. He added Morrison turned down the promotion to remain with her fellow soldiers of the 1544th.
Morrison and Spec. Charles Lamb were killed the same day during a mortar attack on their base near Baghdad.
“I knew a lot of these kids,” said Murray.
Wednesday was the first time many of the cyclists completed a ride of 100 miles or more, and they must repeat the task three more times to complete the 500-mile ride in four days as planned. The ride begins and ends in Springfield.
“Your legs and mind want to give up after the first few miles, but for a cause like this your heart keeps you going,” said rider Dave Helfrich. “It’s that military mentality that you don’t give up.”
Paris Mayor Craig Smith briefly addressed the group of riders and support personnel from the Gold Star Mission. He noted the effort shows surviving family members their loss will never be forgotten.
Smith added the Gold Star Riders were given the key to the city when they came through in 2017, but that honor did little for them. He had another offer Wednesday evening.
“We are going to set up a tab at the VFW. I guess the mayor is going to buy a few beers tonight,” said Smith.
Assistance for the riders comes from several sources with support vehicles transporting baggage and equipped to repair the bicycles. Illinois State Troopers on motorcycles are escorting the group all four days.
Locally, the National Guard Armory provided a bivouac in the gym at the facility and members of the Paris High School cross-country team volunteered to set up cots before the group arrived for the evening.
Transportation was also provided to get the riders to the VFW where they were served a meal.