SEBASTIAN — A man’s “golden” years often involve relaxing, starting a hobby, maybe a little fishing. Retired Air Force fighter pilot Col. Gary West chose travelling.
But no fancy cruise, no jetting off to some exotic paradise: West decided to take a 2,500-mile trip from Maine to Key West – on a bicycle.
A 27-year military veteran, West is making the journey to raise funds for Folds of Honor, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that offers scholarships to children whose parent were killed or disabled while on active duty. His goal: to raise $60,000 during the 60-day trip, arriving in Key West on his 60th birthday, Oct. 1.
Florida is the final leg of West’s 15-state journey, and, on Sep. 23, he and his 6-member team arrived in Sebastian, receiving a welcome that illustrated why, as Mayor Bob McPartland put it, “Sebastian is one of the most patriotic cities in the entire country.”
Learning of West’s journey less than week before he was scheduled to reach Sebastian, City Council member and retired Master Sergeant Andrea Coy made some contacts, the City of Sebastian and the Sebastian Chamber of Commerce got the word out and soon the community was involved.
A crowd greeted West as he crossed the county line. Sebastian police and the Freedom Riders provided an escort to Riverview Park. Groups of business people and others lined the route, waving flags and cheering.
At the park’s Veterans Memorial, skies dark, rain threatening, the crowd stood, the American Legion/VFW Honor Guard presented the flag, and the ceremony began.
West carries an American flag for the family of a fallen or disabled parent/spouse from each state on his journey. In Sebastian, as at each stop, the flag is raised, and ultimately presented to the family, along with a journal of the locations and signatures of participants in a flag-folding ceremony, using the 15 state flags, folded again and again, at each event. West has raised these flags at such memorable sites as Independence Hall and Ground Zero.
West said, “It’s not about some old man riding a bike, it’s to honor the fallen, the families of the fallen, the first responders. It’s up to us to make sure they’re not forgotten. They’ve given us the greatest gift: to breathe free, to live free.”
As taps sounded, there was a low rumble of thunder, befitting the occasion.
Chamber members Kathy and Roger Birt from Woody’s BBQ provided hotel accommodations and meals for the team. Coy hoped to raise $1,000 for West, and praised the citizens of Sebastian for donating in excess of $3,500.