GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - Holidays honoring war veterans have always produced parades, memorials, and department store sales, but the Navajo Hopi Honor Riders, Inc. (NHHR) have committed to something greater - to support and honor all military service personnel, past and present, year round.
"We are a group of people brought together to ride for those who cannot, by remembering that freedom is not free and honoring the blue star and gold star families," said NHHR run organizer, Shelly Begay, speaking to Rotary on the Rim members at their Feb. 24 meeting.
The Honor Riders will take part in this year's Tusayan Fourth of July parade.
Founded in 2003 by Larry Noble, director-in-charge of the Annual Honor Run, the group incorporated as a non-profit organization and has recently submitted paperwork for 501(c)3 (non-profit status) from the IRS.
"Now that we are incorporated, we want to do even more to help our veterans and active duty personnel and their families. We are trying to work on donations and sponsorship to bring our mission statement to reality, and ultimately become self-sufficient," Begay said.
NHHR began with a run planned for Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving with the U.S. military. According to Begay, the 156-mile run was scheduled to start in Window Rock, ending in Tuba City, honoring Piestewa's service to the country.
"It involved about 12 riders. At the time, Percy Piestewa, Lori's mother, asked us to continue this honor run 'until they all come home.' Now, we stop and honor 13 soldiers who were killed in action," Begay said. "This has since expanded to welcome home escorts, deployment escorts, veteran funerals, memorial runs, parades and special requests appearances."
Composed of members from across the Navajo and Hopi Nations, the Honor Riders now participate in all events when and where they are requested, time and distance permitting, and has expanded to over 350 members. Begay added that NHHR is not an exclusive club, and welcomes anyone who wishes to support their cause whether it be riding on a motorcycle or following in a vehicle. Men, women and children are all welcome at their events.
"Since we are not an official club we not have actual numbers. Last year we had some riders who traveled from Hawaii to ride with us," she said. "It is not limited to Navajos and Hopis, we welcome anyone who has the desire to show their support for our military, many of our riders are veterans who have never received a proper welcome home and have said they gain healing and pride from welcoming home a new generation."
For Shelley Begay, the NHHR experience has become central in her life in a personal way as well.
"I used to ride with Larry [Noble] but after several runs and seeing women riders on their own bikes, I have been inspired to learn, go through a riding course and now ride my own motorcycle," she said.
Personal growth creates a unique connection between the riders and families of veterans from all backgrounds, Begay says.
"It is a great feeling to see the anticipation of the family when we arrive at a welcome home escort. The family has not seen the soldier in months or even over a year and to see the love, pride and elation is just overwhelming," she said. "When a soldier is returning the entire community comes out, in our culture there is an emphasis on family and we all connect through that as well as through our support for the soldier and showing that support by riding."
Begay said that hearing stories of the families of fallen veterans still looking for their soldier through the crowd, knowing that they never will, is heartbreaking, but their love comes through their happy memories.
"I think just seeing the family and especially the children when seeing their father or mother after such a long time is incredibly moving. To see the relief in the eyes of the mothers and grandmothers, to see the pride in the faces of the fathers, uncles and grandfathers, to have the thankfulness of the families when all we did was escort them home is what makes it worthwhile," she added.
For Begay, being a part of the Honor Riders has been a constant reminder of what the sacrifice of some does for many. The intensity of emotion felt during their runs translates into greater motivation to bolster support for veterans and their families.
"Seeing the strength of the mothers when faced with another year of the reality that their child is gone, comforting those who are trying to comfort them, seeing a smile come to their face when reminded of a story of their child and remembering that happy moment, seeing pride in their eyes knowing that all in attendance are there for them and to honor them and realizing we will always remember the sacrifice made by their loved one," she said.
The NHHR will be part of Tusayan's Fourth of July celebration, promoting their year-long raffle of a Suzuki B-King 1340 motorcycle, custom painted by AJ's Customs Motorcycle Painting in Mesa. This fundraiser ends Veterans Day 2011. Tickets are $25 each and are available through their online store and events throughout the year. The motorcycle will also be available for viewing when the custom paint and artwork is complete. Proceeds from this raffle go directly to the NHHR. Need not be present to win. All winners will be contacted within 72 hours of the drawing.
For more information and to find out how to contribute, visit www.navajohopihonorriders.com.