Riding to remember

  • A cyclist supports a co-rider during a hill climb near the end of the Gold Star 500, a five-day ride throughout central and southern Illinois (Brian Monahan, Facebook).
  • A sign adorns the front of the Waverly American Legion, where the Gold Star 500 riders and support staff ate lunch Sept. 19 on the ride’s first day (Jeannie Rae Houchens Pasley, Facebook).
  • www.IraqWarHeroes.org

By Julie Gerke

Jacksonville residents had a chance to honor their military fallen when the Gold Star 500 bicycle ride stopped here Sept. 19.

The annual ride, whose route changes yearly, was part of a fundraiser for Gold Star Mission, a nonprofit that honors Illinois military members who have died in service since Sept. 11, 2001.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Weikert, 29, of Jacksonville, was among those honored. The son of Susan and Dick Weikert of Jacksonville, he was mortally wounded July 17, 2010, in Orgun, Afghanistan, while serving with the U.S. Army.

Riders left Springfield at 7 a.m., taking old U.S. 36 to New Berlin. They continued on to Jacksonville’s Central Park Plaza, arriving about 9:45 a.m., with an escort of support vehicles and Illinois State Police motorcycle troopers.

After speeches, snacks, a bathroom break and a triple chant of “Never forget,” riders took Illinois Route 104 south to Waverly for a lunch break at the American Legion. The afternoon ride continued on Route 104 to Litchfield, where the 35-person contingent spent the night at Litchfield High School.

“We’re really lucky in this part of the country there’s this type of patriotism,” Susan Weikert said in advance of the ride. “We try to get schools involved; that’s where the welcome is. … Those kids will be out there waving flags and welcoming riders and kids will line up and riders will give them high fives. That just gives me goosebumps; that’s the true ‘welcome wagon.’”

The second day of the five-day, 500-mile ride included Scott Air Force Base, then Freeburg, Red Bud and Sparta. The route on Sept. 21 included Steeleville, Chester, Carbondale and Harrisburg. Riders on the final two days headed to Fairfield and Effingham, then Shelbyville and Taylorville, before finishing in Springfield.

Riders and their support staff (Susan Weikert, a registered nurse, was ride medic) spent their nights in armories or schools; meals were provided by veterans’ and fraternal organizations along the route. Riders paid a fee to participate and donations to the website always are welcome. All donations are used to support $1,000 scholarships that are given in the name of the fallen.

The group also hosts running and walking events throughout the year. Its website, goldstarmission.org, states more than 300 volunteers have provided more than 13,330 hours of help through January 2023.

In addition to the scholarships, Gold Star Mission is sharing the stories of its fallen soldiers through a new video project. Several of the 20- to 30-minute stories already are posted on the website.

Some 214 scholarships had been awarded as of March 22; there are more than 300 soldiers on the list.

“They attach a [fallen soldier’s] name to each scholarship so each recipient can understand they are preserving the memory of that fallen soldier and show that recipient there was something sacrificed for them,” Susan Weikert said.

The organization’s tie to education is important to Matt Weikert’s memory, his mother said. “We always knew he had a big heart. The people who really knew him knew he had a big heart. I knew he had a good mind, too. … The peoples’ lives he touched over the years were instrumental in [Matt] becoming the man he became.”

The scholarship money can be used for four-year or two-year colleges, trade schools or for higher education. Applications and guidelines are on the website; priority is given first to Gold Star family members, then veterans, then families of veterans and then to the general public.

The riders (all were seasoned cyclists; the route was not designed for beginners) ride 125 miles every day for five days, cycling through all kinds of weather, Susan Weikert said. Van support was provided for those who had to fall out at some point, either due to injury or heat.

The cyclists ranged in age from 20 to a retired general in his 80s, Weikert said. Most of the riders were men; last year, a contingent of Polish soldiers participated.

The route used back roads, and the 30-member cycling pack was escorted by Illinois State Police troopers on motorcycles. Weikert, the route medic for several years, was immediately available if someone fell, had heat stroke, or any kind of injury or illness. She also provided sunscreen and relief for blisters, cuts and scrapes.

Matthew Weikert joined the U.S. Marine Corps in August 2001, serving three tours in Iraq over four years. He later joined the Army and served with the 101st Airborne, completing a tour in Iraq before he was deployed to Afghanistan.

“He said, ‘Mom, I know what I gotta do,’” Susan Weikert said. “Somehow, he understood the choice he had to make to do something positive with his life.”

Gold Star Mother’s and Family Day fell on September 24 this year, and is traditionally observed on the last Sunday in September. Illinois Governor JB Pritzker has signed a Gold Star Mother’s Day Proclamation to recognize the mothers who suffered the supreme tragedy in the loss of their sons and daughters in wars and remember the sacrifice they have made. To observe, it was asked that one takes a moment and recognizes the heartfelt sacrifices of our Gold Star Family members to help honor these families and their service men and women.

The day is for honoring families of those who have received The Gold Star — the military award no one wants. The award commemorates the tragic death of a military member who has perished while in the line of duty and hopes to provide a level of comfort to the parents and families that are left behind. Since World War I, a “Gold Star Family” has signified a family that has lost one of its members in combat. The family can display a Gold Star Service Flag for any military family members who have died from any honorable cause — each gold star on the flag signifies a death. Though today only around 1% of the country is involved in military service, as compared to the 12% during other times of war, like World War II, there are still a significant number of surviving Gold Star families — not to mention, a Gold Star lives on in a family’s legacy.

Just recently, after our Gold Star Mission’s GS500*, three of our Gold Star Mothers, Judy Hopper, Vonda Coulter Rodgers, and Susan Weikert received their own personal framed copy for their volunteer work the past week. Thank you all for your hard work, ladies!

* The Gold Star Mission GS500 is a fully-supported, 500-plus-mile ride across the state honors and preserves the memories of our fallen heroes. All funds raised go directly to support the Fallen Heroes History Project Videos and Educational Scholarship Programs.

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