Bentonville man travels 6,000 miles for veterans

George Kopcsak, of Bentonville, served in the Army during the Vietnam War. Alex Bridges/Daily
Run for the Wall participants prepare to leave Front Royal to continue their Ride for the Wall, an annual trek from California to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Alex Bridges/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – A Warren County man honored his fellow military veterans with a motorcycle ride that ended in Washington, D.C., over the weekend.

Retired U.S. Army Col. George Kopcsak, of Bentonville, and hundreds of other motorcyclists participated in the Run for the Wall – an annual trek from California to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

The group, traveling from the South, stopped in Front Royal on Friday.

“It pulls patriotism,” Kopcsak said. “I spent 30 years in the Army and so I get to still be a patriot in this crowd.

“It’s inspiring to me to see the people and the dedication,” he added. “It’s a mission. It’s not a joy ride.”

Kopcsak, 76, served 30 years in the Army and fought in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The ride involved about 450 motorcycles traveling 70 miles per hour on the interstate, 3 feet apart side by side and 5 feet behind.

“It just takes one slip and then you’ve got this mess,” Kopcsak said.

Many participants won’t make the same journey next year, Kopcsak recalled hearing the group’s leader say Friday morning. Riders get up around 5 a.m. each morning and the groups must stick to the schedule because people are waiting for them at different points in the journey, he said.

“We have been very fortunate,” Kopcsak added. “We’ve had beautiful weather. The roads were clear and dry. People were always good to us.”

Law enforcement agencies have escorted the riders most of the way and will continue to do so as they reach their destination in Arlington, Kopcsak said.

Riders saw a lot of support along the way, he said.

“The thing that’s really interesting is how many patriots there are standing alongside the road,” Kopcsak said. “In the last 3,000 miles I must have seen thousands of people waving flags, standing on bridges, kinda like it is for Rolling Thunder but this is all across the gosh darn country. It’s remarkable.”

“We are trying to make sure that no one forgets,” Kopcsak added. “I mean, I served in Vietnam and people weren’t happy when I came home. It was a bad war as far as they were concerned and we don’t want that to happen again.”

Run for the Wall continues to attract younger riders and veterans of more recent military action in Iraq and other parts of the world, Kopcsak noted.

Chaplains also joined the riders and checked on the participants “because it’s very emotional,” Kopcsak said.

“There’s not a person on this ride who hasn’t shed tears,” he added.

This year marked the first time Kopcsak took park in the Run for the Wall and “committed to 6,000 miles of bike riding.”

Run for the Wall embarked from Ontario, California. Motorcyclists head east, with groups from different parts of the country joining as the packs ride toward Washington.

Kopcsak and his friend Lonnie Hitchcock decided to participate from the beginning and that meant first riding to California.

Kopcsak and Hitchcock spent six days riding on Interstate 40 through rain and heavy winds. In Flagstaff, Arizona, temperatures fell to 36 degrees, Kopcsak recalled. They arrived in Ontario, California, on May 16 and registered for the ride back that began two days later. Riders embarked  from California with three groups taking different routes east. Kopcsak and Hitchcock took the southern route through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Kopcsak’s wife, Michele, took a train and joined her husband in Meridian, Mississippi. The riders then headed to Tennessee and, on the eighth day, rode into Wytheville, Virginia, where town residents lined the streets to greet them, Kopcsak said. The riders spent the ninth night of the journey in Lynchburg and then came to Front Royal where they stopped before continuing east.

Riders then went to Arlington and Kopcsak led a candlelight vigil Friday at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with the Winchester Harley Owners group. Kopcsak and his wife participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington on Saturday with Hitchcock and his wife, Vicki.

“It’s a very special thing for us,” Kopcsak said.

Along the way, riders stopped at Veterans Affairs medical centers and talked to patients. Riders visited schools and spoke to children who Kopcsak called “our future patriots.” Most of the gasoline burned for the trip has been donated, Kopcsak said. Likewise, riders received all their meals from civic groups such as the Lions Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, or at Harley Davidson shops.

“Every day we read about people who are still missing in action,” Kopcsak said. “Someone gets up on the trailer and tells a story about someone whose remains have not been returned as of yet.”

Riders include active-duty service members, former prisoners of war and wives of people whose names appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, Kopcsak said.

“It’s really emotional,” he said. “This year there was a big effort to discuss how the women supported our war movement in the military, and the nurses, and so we have a number of women on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial, and there were women who were flying aircraft during World War II ferrying them around the world to fight.”

Veterans also deal with the prevalence of suicide among their ranks. Statistics would show that approximately 220 male and female military veterans have committed suicide since riders left California, Kopcsak said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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