A cross-country procession of about 25 motorcycle riders stopped at the Baker City Airport Thursday afternoon to honor Army Spc. Mabry Anders, a 21-year-old Baker City soldier who was killed in action in Afghanistan on Aug. 27, 2012.
The Tribute to Fallen Soldiers riders, escorting the Fallen Soldiers Memorial Flame from Eugene to Arlington National Cemetery, parked their bikes outside a hangar around 12:15 p.m. and played “Amazing Grace” from the speakers of a motorcycle before greeting the crowd that attended the reception.
Warren Williamson, Tribute to Fallen Soldiers Executive Director, presented Anders’ mother, Genevieve Woydziak, with a canvas painting of a young Anders with his parents in front of an American flag backdrop along with a patch with Anders’ name. The riders also bear that patch as they travel across the country.
“It’s not a club that you want to be a part of, but with this patch Mabry will be with us as we travel to Arlington,” Williamson said.
Woydziak also signed one of three American flags in her son’s name that the group will fly with them as they ride into Arlington.
The group left Eugene on Tuesday after the mother and sister of a fallen solder lit the flame, and they are slated to arrive in Washington, D.C., on Aug 3.
Their ride will end on Aug 5, after two days of honoring soldiers, when they extinguish the flame at the 9/11 memorial and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
This is not the first time the tribute to Fallen Soldiers has come to Baker City to honor Anders, having also stopped here in 2013.
On Thursday, the organization presented Woydziak with a Plaque of Distinguished Service that reads, “Your fallen hero will never be forgotten,” above a picture of Anders. This trip is the first time the group brought the memorial flame to Baker City and presented Woydziak with the canvas.
“Mabry is one of our own,” said Williamson. “They’ve been a wonderful family to us. Genevieve is a great friend and a great advocate for us.”
He said Woydziak consistently shares the group’s posts on Facebook and is active in their promotion.
Williamson told Woydziak they wanted to stop by to honor Anders and say hello. They surprised her with the canvas, which was painted by a veteran from Dallas, Texas.
Throughout the 19-day, 3,500-mile ride, the organization will honor 62 other soldiers killed since 9/11.
While at times along the ride Williamson said they gain and lose riders who can’t make the entire journey from coast to coast, the group of about 25 riders who stopped in Baker are the core group that plans to participate in the entire ride. He said they started out with about 100 riders in Eugene.
From Baker City, the group continued to Caldwell, Idaho, for two more tributes Thursday night, before honoring three soldiers in Boise on Friday. The group planned to end today’s ride in Salt Lake City.
Williamson said he scheduled Anders’ tribute to be their first one Thursday because he thought his familiarity with Anders’ parents would make this one of the less taxing tributes on his emotions.
“I though it’d be easier because I know the family now,” he said. “But you look into parents’ faces and you can still see pain on their faces. It was a weird feeling pulling in here.”
One aspect of the reception Williamson emphasized is saying the fallen soldier’s name.
“We really like to say his name because we understand that his name doesn’t get said as much anymore. So we are saying his name today and we will say his name again at the 9/11 memorial,” he said.
Sunday is Anders’ birthday. He would be turning 27.
Woydziak’s husband, Troy, who is a helicopter pilot, was fighting the Taylor Creek Fire near Grants Pass and was unable to attend Thursday’s reception.
Williamson said, each night as the riders rest, someone guards the flame all night.
“We will protect, honor and guard that flame as we would protect, honor and guard your fallen hero,” said Williamson.
He said Anders is the only soldier they’ve honored from Baker City, although they’ve paid tribute to two soldiers from La Grande and two soldiers from Pendleton before.
Dave Hall, a retired Eugene firefighter, joined the ride for the first time this summer. Although he’s not a veteran himself, he was invited to join the ride during his encounters with the organziation at parades. Hall took the opportunity to participate now that he has more time.
“It’s an incredible expereience,” he said. “It’s worth doing, and I’ll never not do it.”
His son is stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, which is one of the group’s stops, although he said his son won’t be there when they ride through as he’s at an Air Force training in Las Vegas.
Jimm and Shellie Mooney of Baker City also presented Genevieve Woydziak with a Killed in Action flag that was embroidered with Anders’ name and rank and was signed by the community at the Killed in Action Honor Flag Organization’s booth at the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally last weekend.
“It’s about more than giving them an object, but we’re also giving them our friendship,” Jimm said.