On Sunday, they’ll strap on helmets and climb onto their motorcycles and ride down the road, away from Bucks County’s 9-11 memorial in Lower Makefield.
Leading them, in spirit, will be Travis Manion, at the head of the column even in death, as he so often was in life.
Travis, of course, is gone, killed by sniper fire in Iraq on April 29, 2007.
Riding for him on Sunday will be Steve Cantrell, astride Travis’ motorcycle, a sleek black Harley Davidson that the 26-year-old Marine had far too little time to ride before his death.
And riding just behind Cantrell as the third annual Ride for the Heroes hits the road will be Ryan Manion, Travis’ sister and executive director of the foundation that bears his name. The motorcycle ride is now something she looks forward to, she said.
“I ride in it every year. I get on the back of one of the bikes and we take off. You kind of get hooked on it,” Manion said. “You have lawyers and presidents of banks, and you see them throughout the year in their suits and ties, and on this day, you see them decked out in their Harley gear. It’s great.”
The Central Bucks Rotary organized the first Ride for the Heroes in 2010 as a fundraiser for the Travis Manion Foundation.
In the first year, the ride raised about $10,000. Last year, the Rotary doubled that. This year, they hope to be able to write a check for at least $30,000 to the foundation Janet and Tom Manion started in honor of their son after his death.
This year’s ride takes on even greater significance in the wake of Janet’s death from cancer on April 24.
“We’ve been thinking a lot about Janet as we get ready for this ride,” Rotary member Eric Lepping said. “We hope to make her proud.”
When the Central Bucks Rotary first approached the Manions about a motorcycle ride fundraiser for the foundation, it couldn’t have been more serendipitous.
Travis had bought a motorcycle after his first deployment to Iraq. It’s a sleek, black Harley Davidson.
“I don’t know anything about bikes, but they said it’s really understated and simplistic,” Ryan Manion said of her brother’s motorcycle. “All the guys who see it say ‘This is a great bike.’ “
Travis had planned on having plenty of time to ride it in the sunshine of San Diego, Calif., where he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.
But that plan was cut short when he deployed back to Iraq for a second tour. He left on the day after Christmas, 2006.
Five months later, he was killed.
After his death, his belongings were shipped back to Doylestown from San Diego, including the Harley.
It had fewer than 100 miles on it, Cantrell said.
For a few months, it sat unused.
“My husband and I had it in our garage; neither of us ride a bike,” Ryan Manion recalled.
Then, Alex Gorsky, the vice chairman of the foundation's board of directors, bought it. Gorsky, who lives in Buckingham and is the new CEO of Johnson & Johnson, lends Travis’ bike out each year for use in the Ride.
The Naval Academy Connection
In 2010, as plans were coming together for the first Ride for the Heroes, Steve Cantrell's phone rang.
Janet Manion was on the other end of the line and she had a favor to ask.
"She really wanted Travis' bike to be in the ride, and she asked me if I'd ride it," Cantrell said Tuesday. "It was absolutely an honor for me, and I was so happy to do it."
Today, Cantrell lives in Doylestown Township and teaches and coaches wrestling at Delaware Valley College.
For 24 years, though, until his retirement in 2007, Cantrell was a Marine. He taught economics and coached wrestling at the U.S. Naval Academy, and that's where he met Travis Manion in 2001.
Travis was a student in Cantrell's classroom and a member of the wrestling team. But when asked today to characterize the relationship, Cantrell will say that Manion became as much his mentor as the older man was to the younger.
"I know that’s funny to say, but his approach to life, I think, was just extraordinary," Cantrell said.
A shoulder injury had sidelined Manion from wrestling much of his senior year, Cantrell said. Yet, the young man continued on as captain of the team, showing up at every practice to urge on his teammates, Cantrell said.
One day on patrol in Iraq, Manion's unit came across an improvised explosive device, which blew up, Cantrell said. Travis had spotted the bomb's triggerman and leapt from his vehicle to chase the man down. He caught him, and brought him back to the unit.
The Iraqis he was serving with wanted to kill the man, Cantrell said. Manion wouldn’t let them.
It's tempting to lionize people after they're gone, to want to speak only kindly of the dead.
Travis Manion, though, was everything people say he was, Cantrell said.
"He's from a wealthy family, he was extremely bright, he could have gone Ivy League; he could have chosen an easy road," Cantrell said. "Instead, he chose the Naval Academy, and then the Marines, like his father. He would help you in any way he could. He really was selfless."
Funding the Foundation
Inspired by Travis' attitude of "if not me, then who?" the Doylestown-based foundation runs three main programs that "honor the fallen by challenging the living": a Character Does Matter leadership program, an Honor the Fallen program that offers challenge grants and fellowship pairings, and the each September 11th.
The foundation also funds Good Grief seminars, scholarships, and community service projects that benefit wounded and disabled veterans and families of fallen service members.
The money raised during Sunday's ride will be donated to the Foundation to continue its work.
The Ride leaves from the Garden of Reflection in Lower Makefiled and will travel about 25 miles to the FOP picnic grove at 82 Scott Rd., Bedminster. There, attendees will enjoy a picnic and live music by Tuesday’s Gone, a Lynard Skynard tribute band, and the band of Rotary members, Bobby Kadel Wears Glasses (BKWG).
A single rider or a picnic guest is $25; double riders are $40. Riders may pre-register on the website the Rotary created for the ride. Donations to the fundraiser may be made by following the same link.
Both the picnic and the ride will be held rain or shine.