A helping hand
Malibu, Calif., Sept. 8—Saturday, September 8 marked the 11th annual Ride to the Flags, an all-day event that assembled at Point Mugu Naval Air Station in Ventura County before embarking on a 28-mile ride south, ending in Malibu. Bikes began emerging through the thick early morning fog and lined up at the entrance of the Naval Air Station. Bomb-sniffing dogs inspected each bike before granting participants access to the secure base.
Inside the base, a ceremony was held in remembrance of the attack that occurred on September 11, 2001. It consisted of various speakers, including Command Master Chief Martin Laaurie and Captain Doug King CSO who gave an emotional speech on the attacks, and the importance of never forgetting that tragic day that occurred 17 years ago. The ride’s founder and president of the White Heart Foundation, Ryan Sawtelle, then took the stage to introduce Holly Katke, this year’s chosen hero and beneficiary of nearly $50,000 raised this year by White Heart. Holly, a U.S Navy Chief, Corpsman IDC, was shot in the head by an enemy sniper during a mission with Navy Seals in Iraq eight years ago. The bullet stopped just short of proving fatal, but the injury resulted in a loss of mobility in her right arm, hand, and leg and she’s now legally blind. Holly took the stage with her 12-year-old daughter by her side, beaming with pride in her mother, and told her story. The funds raised will buy specialized rehabilitation equipment, a therapy pool, and help with transportation services for Holly. After that a bell was rung every 10 seconds for three minutes, one minute for each of the three sites attacked, followed by a moment of silence, a wreath hanging, and a 21-gun salute. It was a deeply moving experience.
Immediately following the ceremony, hundreds of bikes lined up behind police cars, fire trucks, military trucks, and actor Kevyn Major Howard’s fleet of Fuel for the Fallen cars wrapped with all the names of the 9/11 victims, complete with lights and sirens. The police-escorted ride proceeded along the coast on a beautiful span of the Pacific Coast Highway. Along the route, the street was lined with Boy Scouts on either side holding American flags. It was amazing feeling the energy and excitement of unsuspecting tourists and beachgoers, as they too, lined the streets cheering on the procession with extreme enthusiasm.
The ride ended at Malibu Bluffs Park across from Pepperdine University’s massive Alumni Park, a huge grass field where 2,977 flags fly in the Wave of Flags memorial in honor of each of the victims who lost their lives on 9/11. It’s breathtaking to see that many flags in one place, especially given what they represent. Bikes were directed in under a massive American flag suspended between two fire truck ladders.
Inside Malibu Bluffs Park the party was underway. With lots of vendors, beer, and food, it was a great after-party complete with live music by the band the Hubcap Stealers who rocked the crowd. Inside the event I caught up with Ryan Sawtelle and asked how things were going this year. “It was the best year we’ve had yet fundraising-wise; we raised $63,000, and it’s probably the smoothest we’ve had event-wise. The city of Malibu was supportive, the Naval base, and the sheriffs are more than supportive; it was all good. On a fundraising scale we raised more funds for this warrior in this effort then we have in any of our Ride to the Flags in the past. So we’re excited that it’s catching on and people understand what we’re doing here and hopefully this is a snowball effect leading to greater things in the future. Anything we can do to make it friendly for not only just the bikers but the general public who want to come and grab a beer and listen to some music and support a warrior. We try to keep it informal, lax and more of a party atmosphere down here. The formalities all occur up at the naval base.”
When asked what Ryan’s highlight of the day was, he responded, “It’s going to sound weird. Normally at 7:30 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. it’s decently sparse for the bikers that come in; they all pack it in at 9:00 a.m. When we opened the gates at 7:30 to see that many bikers in line and then keep coming and seeing familiar faces, the best part of the day is knowing the support is still there and the support is going to keep coming. When you do an event which is technically free for the general public to attend, just asking for donations, you’re taking a massive gamble. When it actually works out in your favor and you know it’s because of the graciousness of awesome people that keep coming back every year and it keeps growing, that’s something that puts a smile on my face. To those who are considering attending next year I would say just do it once and I guarantee you’re going to leave here thinking, that was awesome. I’ve done a fair share of motorcycle events and they’re great for good causes, but when you get to see the person that you’re helping when you know that you’re having a positive impact on their life, that’s what we do this for.”
I had the honor to meet Holly and ask her about her story. “My team had told me that the Iraqis caught word about me and that it wasn’t safe for me to go outside. They said I only had one more mission and I can pack my stuff up, and that’s it you’re done. I went out the next morning, and that’s when I got shot in the head by a sniper. Everything went black; when I started to wake up I was in the back of the Humvee and I was thinking that I had passed out, I had no idea I had been shot until I noticed my arms were covered in blood. So as a medical provider—I’m supposed to be the one helping other people—I started to apply medical dressing to myself. I couldn’t see anything; it was all instinct. We made it back to camp and that’s when I passed out. I was in a coma for about a month. Three months later I had the bullet removed and by then my daughter, Leah, was getting ready for kindergarten. I had to basically learn that I can’t cry, I can’t get upset, I can’t do anything; I have to take care of her.” When asked how it feels to see all these people come together to support her, she replied, “It feels overwhelming in a good way. To come here and have this be my first event that I’ve ever witnessed is surreal. It’s like something I dreamed of. I’m overjoyed, I’m truly appreciative of everything, I don’t feel I deserve any of this. When you think that you’re just one person, what difference am I going to make, but then look around us, look at all the bikers that are here. One person can do it but if you get a whole bunch of people they can do amazing things.”