By Linda D. Kozaryn
WASHINGTON, Aug. 13, 2006 – Three years ago, up and coming singer-songwriter Rockie Lynne wrote a song called "Home" to honor the sons and daughters of the Midwest who died while serving the nation. Some friends added photos and made a DVD. Their musical and visual production led another friend to create what's now become an annual tribute to the troops.
Gregg Schmitt, a music agent working for Lynne, was so moved by the song and images on the DVD he decided to do something for the families of the fallen. The two men played the video for friends in Minneapolis -- mainly bikers and veterans -- and that's how "The Tribute to the Troops" was born.
On Sept. 11, 2004, Lynne, Schmitt and about 60 bikers on 45 motorcycles visited the homes of three fallen servicemembers in the Twin Cities metro area. They were so moved by the reaction of the families, they vowed to ride again the next year. "We didn't really know what to expect the first time we did it," Schmitt said. "The response from the families, and from everybody who rode that day - it felt really good. The families were so thankful. We came away with a saying, and that is 'If you were there, you know.' Otherwise, we can't use words to describe the feelings that day."
Shortly after the ride, Lynne signed a major recording contract with Universal South. He promised Schmitt that no matter what his future held, he was committed to participate in the ride every year. "My concern after getting the record deal was to make sure that we were able to keep the focus on the soldiers," Lynne said, "and try as hard as we could to deflect attention away from me and toward those servicemen and women. That's who it's about - it's about them and their families."
Yet, Lynne also realized that his growing career might be able to help the troops. "If any celebrity I might encounter somehow helps bring attention to these servicemen and women and what they're doing for our nation, then that's good," he said. By and large, Lynne noted, the families he's met are very supportive of the government and its military operations. "They're absolutely in support of making sure that their child did not die for nothing -- that we accomplish whatever we set out to do."
Meeting families who have lost their son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father "will change you for the rest of your life," Lynne said. "The sense of loss on those people's faces is so powerful, it makes you want to do something. You'll never take our freedom for granted again."
In 2005, 90 riders visited 14 families throughout Minnesota, and Lynne performed at a benefit concert. The event raised $5,000 for Wounded Warriors, a Nebraska-based nonprofit corporation founded in 2003 to support the soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. Coordinating the annual tribute, Schmitt said, is a way to "give back" for all the good things in his life. "I lead a dream life,' he explained. "I've been blessed with a very successful business. I live in a beautiful home on a lake. I have two beautiful daughters. My wife still loves me and laughs at my jokes after 30 years. I feel truly gifted.
"I've volunteered for a lot of different things, but never anything that felt as important or meaningful as reaching out - as strangers - to a person whose heart is aching from the loss of a loved one and telling them we care, we won't forget."
This year's Tribute to the Troops is slated for Sept. 8 to 10. There will be three separate rides visiting 11 families of fallen troops in southern, northern and central Minnesota. Schmitt contacts the families before the ride. "That initial call is a very difficult call," Schmitt said. "Some people are very protective and rightly so, but once they hear about what we're doing, most people are just so open and thankful for people thinking about them and their loss. For the most part, they welcome us with open arms."
Each family receives a copy of the "Home" DVD, and a framed picture of their fallen hero made by volunteer Rick Block. The picture bears The Tribute to the Troops mission statement:
"The Tribute to the Troops ride and benefit concert is dedicated to those brave soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. Our focus is to gratefully and graciously demonstrate to loved ones left behind that we, as ordinary Americans, will not forget their loss. It is in their memory and honor that we raise awareness and funds for the benefit and comfort of those who continue to serve. Through these efforts we convey our gratefulness and appreciation to all veterans who have served, whether in war, or in peace."
Some of the people Schmitt has contacted preferred not to have a visit, he said. "Certainly that's understandable," he added. "Everyone grieves in their own way. We still make them a picture of their hero and FedEx it to them. In fact, Gil Gutknecht, our congressman from southern Minnesota, hand-delivered one for us, and we got a beautiful thank you note from the family."
This year's Tribute to the Troops also includes a Sunday Only Memorial Ride set to gather at Fort Snelling National Cemetery for an all-day ride visiting active-duty military personnel. The ride will end with a benefit concert at about 4 p.m. at the Medina Ballroom in Hamel, Minn.
Lynne, who has two singles off his first album climbing the charts, will appear along with the Killer Hayseeds, Uncle Chunk and G.B. Leighton. A Gibson guitar autographed by Lynne will be raffled off. Tickets for the ride and concert are $40 for a single rider and $50 for a couple on the same bike. Tickets are available for the concert only for $20. Proceeds from the ride and concert will benefit Wounded Warriors Hospital Fund.
The Tribute to the Troops is a partner in the Defense Department's "America Supports You" program, which spotlights ways the American people and the nation's corporate sector support America's men and women in uniform. The organization has a growing list of more than 30 volunteers, including members of some of the families the riders have visited. The group has applied for nonprofit status through the Internal Revenue Service. Supporters include the American Legion, the nation's Blue and Gold Star Mothers, Tee It Up for the Troops, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Wounded Warriors Hospital Fund.