SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — Vonda Rodgers’ son, Sgt. Joshua Rodgers, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2017. Now, she honors his memory during the Gold Star 500.
“We don’t want our loved ones forgotten,” Rodgers said. “We have the opportunity to share their stories, and to ride in their honor.”
The 530-mile cycling trip began Tuesday as 31 cyclists left Camp Lincoln in Springfield.
This week, riders will travel across the state, stopping in Quincy, Galesburg, Rock Falls, and Woodstock, before ending the journey in the Great Lakes Community Center.
The event, first held in 2017, honors the memory of 300 Illinois service members killed while serving overseas since 9/11. Of those 300, 34 include Illinois National Guard members.
“We wanted to make sure their names were remembered so the first year we focused on those 34,” Brian Monahan, the vice president for development for Gold Star Mission, said. “All years subsequent to that we’ve been adding to the list and honoring all of our fallen.”
Monahan, one of the founders of the Gold Star Mission, said he is riding in memory of his cousin’s son, who was killed in Afghanistan.
“Others, they pick someone that they served with or have another connection to,” Monahan said. “Some of them will ride for all fallen service members.”
Fallen Polish military members are also honored in the ride. Since 1993, the Illinois National Guard has had a State Partnership Program with Poland. When deployed overseas, they team up.
Jedrzej and Malgorzata Wilczynska will ride in memory of their father and husband, respectively.
“In each spot along the route, where we go through a town, there may be a fallen service member from that area, we will announce their name,” Monahan said. “We always do. I think that for us [it’s] always remember, never forget. And we will say that three times.”
Money raised during this year’s ride and previous years have been used to fund scholarships named after fallen military service members. Rodgers, a Gold Star mother, said two scholarships were awarded in her son’s name.
“What that means is the recipient learns Josh’s story and they have the opportunity to share his story further,” Rodgers said. “That’s really what it’s all about.”
To learn more about Gold Star Mission, you can visit their website here.