For 44 years, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has been synonymous with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the cyclists and train churning alike to cover the ground from Durango to Silverton.
For the first time in the Iron Horse’s 44-year history, the cycling side of the operation honored Memorial Day weekend with the Memorial Train, a special two-engine train with added cars to carry more than 50 veterans and their families and friends to a special ceremony in Silverton.
Al Harper, owner of the railroad, said he was proud of IHBC race officials to implement this event in concert with the race weekend.
“This will be our future,” he said, after the train pulled in to Silverton in a light snow.
Among the veterans were former Colorado U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who lives in Ignacio; Brigadier General Jerome P. Lumoge, assistant adjutant general with the Colorado Air National Guard; United States Air Force General Ronald R. Fogleman, a four-star general and former chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, Washington, D.C.; and members of Blue Star Moms, who have family currently serving, and Gold Star Mothers, who have lost loved ones in service.
“It was really great to have General Fogleman and General Lumoge stop and talk to these vets,” Harper said. “I got to watch, and it was a treat. We had Gold Star parents, and to have them be able to express their emotions, it was very special.”
Campbell, walking to the ceremony from the train depot, said he was touched spending time with the families of those who serve.
“The most amazing, moving thing to me was meeting a gentleman whose daughter was in the Iraqi war and killed in action,” he said. “When you see that, then you see the great importance of our people serving in the military.”
On the lush grass of the park, backdropped by the storming mountains, rows of white chairs were set up in front of a veterans’ memorial. Three flags – a Colorado state flag, an American flag and a flag for prisoners of war and those missing in action – rippled in the wind over the service.
Founder, former IHBC race director and president of the board Ed Zink, who helped organize the Memorial Train, called it a strong addition to the weekend’s events.
“With the cooperation of the train and the generals and Senator Campbell, we’re able to create enthusiasm,” he said. “And it’s a good balance. We need some emotional stability in our country, too, and taking time to recognize the veterans and Gold Star Mothers is quite important.”
Janna Schaefer, a Blue Star mom and Gold Star families spokesperson, said the people were honored.
“Many of these families we’ve brought here together have lost their son, daughter or husband,” she said. “I can’t say enough what this means to them.”
Sitting in the audience, Sally Silva had a poster of her friend Army Cpl. Jason Lafleur, a 28-year-old from Ignacio who was killed in action in Iraq in 2007. She was sitting next to her father, Joe Silva, 94, a World War II veteran who served as a medic on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
She wiped the tears from her eyes as she spoke.
“It’s just really important that we honor these men and women who have protected us,” she said.
Lumoge told the audience that he was humbled on the train – that veterans honor their fallen comrades, that bonds are made in serving together.
“Friends who shared a foxhole together, dreamed of a home or shared a meal; their time together may have been brief, but the bonds were deeply formed,” he said. “Life and feelings are intensified with a shared hardship and laughter.”
Two trumpet players played “Taps” in the falling snow. A 21-gun salute echoed over the mountain valley.
Fogleman spoke plainly to the veterans and the families and friends of men and women who did not come home.
“America gives its most precious resource to the military – the young men and women who step forward to serve, today in an all-voluntary environment,” he said. “We should always take care of the troops and their families.”