By AL HACKLE firstname.lastname@example.org
Stopping in Statesboro on a planned 6,000-mile-plus bicycle journey across America, Tom von Kaenel led roughly 50 people in a brief memorial service in the lobby of City Hall to Georgians who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Cards with information on each of Georgia’s 209 dead from the recent combat were issued to the local people. Following von Kaenel’s instructions, they read the name, rank, age, hometown and date of death of each fallen warrior before laying the cards one by one around a folded flag.
With everyone reading at once, the sound became a sort of room-filling murmur, then trailed off until there were three deceased veterans left, then two, then one.
“If we do this simultaneously, in a low, measured, prayerful way, people can get an idea of the chaos that occurs when a life is taken. …,” von Kaenel had said. “It’s very, very overwhelming when you hear all these voices.”
He read the last himself, “Worthington, Robert A., Private First Class … just 19 years old.” Georgia’s dead from the recent wars range in age from 18-57. Worthington, from Jackson, died May 22, 2007, in Iraq. The flag von Kaenel brought for the purpose had flown, he said, over the U.S. Capitol and in combat areas in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Von Kaenel, who departed Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, intends to conduct similar rituals in cities across America as he rides. His path will take him down to Key West, Fla., back up to Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, and on through 10 more states and a number of their capitals, from Montgomery, Ala., to Juneau, Alaska. He plans to arrive in Juneau on July 4, then fly back to Atlanta on his way to a July 8 homecoming in Clemson.
He chairs a nonprofit corporation, Sea2Sea, founded in 2012, whose goals are to remind Americans of those who gave their lives and to promote charitable organizations that benefit veterans and military families. Sea2Sea collects no money itself, he said. He and three other Sea2Sea riders in 2012 bicycled 4,200 miles from the Pacific shore of Washington state to Arlington National Cemetery at Washington, D.C. This time he is riding solo.
A resident of Six Mile, S.C., near Clemson, von Kaenel, 58, retired from the Army in 1997 as a lieutenant colonel, but never served in combat. Instead, the incident he credits as inspiration was a 2010 crash during a bike ride in the Pyrenees Mountains of France. He was airlifted from a French hospital to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and found himself surrounded by American service members wounded in the wars.
Mayor Jan Moore welcomed von Kaenel to Statesboro and took part in the ceremony.
“I think I can look around the room and everybody will agree it was very moving,” Moore said. “I don’t think people knew really quite what to expect, but it couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate Ash Wednesday.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.