By the numbers, the 11th Annual Norris Lake Couch Riders Cove Tour looked similar to every other year. More than 30 people and ski’s enjoyed seven days of sunshine, smooth water and camaraderie, evenings of fun by the fire, and friendly Texas Hold ’Em games on the cabin porch. More than 700 miles were ridden and hundreds of hours logged on all the skis. At last count, more than 300 wings were eaten. But one number stands out more than the rest: 800.
The first Watercraft For Warriors fundraiser was part of the annual Norris ride, and raised $800 for the Campbell County (La Follette, TN) Honor Guard.
For the first time, we thought about why we can ride on the beautiful waters of Norris Lake, Tennessee — or anywhere else.
“While we are playing on the water, thousands of men and women are protecting our freedom and ensuring that a war is not fought here in North America,” said Larry Burgess, one of the original Couch Riders. “My dad was a World War II vet who spent three years in Europe. I am amazed by what the military service members do for little money or thanks. I had the kernel of an idea to say ‘thanks’ by giving back to a local veterans group, but the execution came from a veteran and rider, Steve Kresko.”
“Larry called me about a month before the ride,” Kresko said. “He talked about the importance of giving back to the local community in La Follette, to a veteran’s group right where we ride and give 100 percent of donations to the organization. So I started making calls.”
Kresko, himself a highly decorated veteran (retired US Army Special Forces Sargent First Class and veteran of 12 combat tours; earning two Bronze Stars and one Meritorious Service Medal, among many others), made numerous calls, looking for information on groups in the area. La Follette Mayor Mike Stanfield, a US Army Vietnam veteran, called back with an idea: The Campbell County Honor Guard.
“The plan was to have everyone donate something — our goal was the amount of a tank of fuel per person, or whatever was comfortable, whether it was $1 or $10 or more,” Kresko said. “Our other goal was to get the marinas and marina association involved, asking them to give back a little bit of the money we were spending on the lake.”
There was a plastic tub of cash collected. This grassroots effort went directly to the Honor Guard with no interference; just a fistful of dollars handed to them by some grateful PWC riders. That most important number, $800, will be used for uniforms, US and Service Branch flags, and transportation costs for the veteran volunteers who make up the Honor Guard.
“It was a very emotional week for me,” Kresko said. “To see how surprised the Honor Guard was at how much we collected – to show respect to someone that has sacrificed so much – it can be just a hug or a handshake. But it must be from the heart, as this was, and I am amazed at the generosity shown, and proud of our Couch Riders group.”
“The Honor Guard attends more than 100 funerals each year,” Stanfield said, speaking to the t-shirt clad PWC riders. “It means so much to the loved ones of the veterans to have military representation at the funeral. It’s an honor for me to be here today to say thanks for this gracious gift to our local veterans.”
Accepting the Couch Riders donation were Honor Guard members Hugh Hatmaker, Master Sargent, US Air Force (ret.); Kenneth Paul, Sargent, US Army (vet); Gene Browning, Master Sargent, US Air Force (ret.); and Bob Rosia, Corporal, US Marines, (vet). All are Vietnam Veterans.
“We have about 20 members at each funeral, to fold and present the flag to the family members, give the gun salute, and honor the veteran’s rank,” Hatmaker said. “The service is performed regardless of rank or military branch. We have all branches represented at each memorial. This is provided free of charge, and we are supported by donations.”
“We also do presentations and color guard duty at parades and other events, and do flag burning ceremonies,” Browning added. “When we do a flag burning ceremony at an elementary school, and explain to the kids what the flag and the military are all about, you should see them. They sit still and quiet and listen closely to what we have to say.”
So while we were enjoying the lake on our vacation, thoughts of those who serve were not far away, and an idea occurred to us: to challenge every PWC group around this wonderful, free country to do the same thing we did. Pick one of your group rides, and support a veterans group in the area where you are riding. Keep it simple and easy for everyone, no pressure about how much to donate, no administration, just a handful of cash to help out. Join the Facebook group “Watercraft Community for Warriors” and post about your plans. And, the invitation is open for the next Couch Riders Cove Tour, May 15-22, 2016.