Bikers and veterans turn out
The morning of Aug. 6 offered to be a pretty normal day for most folk in the East County. It started under a typical overcast, with sun and warmer temperatures later in the day forecast. Great weather for bikers, including the veterans and military family members who began staging their motorcycles in front of El Cajon Harley Davidson.
It is not at all an unusual occurrence to see bikes in front of the Harley dealer, particularly on a Saturday offering decent riding weather. However, the number of machines this morning was much larger than usual due to a significant date being recognized. It was five years to the day since a singularly deadly incident in our recent wars.
For those who may be unaware of this piece of American military history, on Aug. 6, 2011, an Army CH-47 helicopter, call sign Extortion One-Seven, was shot down in Afghanistan by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by the Taliban. Killed were 31 Americans, including some of the nation’s premier special operators.
It was to remember this loss and support the Navy SEAL and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Warrior Foundations that the bikers were staging. They would be participating in the fourth annual Extortion One-Seven Memorial Poker Run, a special event started by retired sailors Glen Ottman and John Alford.
As described by Glenn’s widow Penny Ottman, the ride came about spontaneously. Her husband and Alford were meeting for breakfast in El Cajon on Aug. 6 2011, also Ottman’s birthday. Upon arriving, Alford informed Ottman of the aircraft shoot down and loss of life. They decided something needed to be done and the poker run was born.
According Alford, retired Navy EOD, “The Extortion One-Seven Memorial Poker Run is a fundraiser for the Navy SEAL Foundation and EOD Warrior Foundation [that] my best friend and I started in 2013 to claim his birthday (Aug. 6, the same day as mission being shot down in 2011) back from the Taliban and memorialize the heroes on the helicopter.”
Motorcycle riders, bikers if you will, these veterans started the annual event now in its fourth year. That was characteristic of her husband, according to Ms. Ottman.
She related how he had previously decided they should support the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, not because of any direct connection with the cause, but just because it was the right thing to do; just as it was the right thing to do to start the Extortion One-Seven Memorial Poker Run. Sadly, Glen passed away recently. In one of life’s tragic ironies, it was a brain tumor that took his life.
That aspect was the source of poignancy hanging in the air for those who knew Ottman, since this Saturday, the fifth anniversary of the shoot down of Extortion One-Seven, would have been his 52nd birthday. In some respects, there was a sense of two memorials.
In our nation with less than one percent serving in the military, many have little to no understanding of the warrior culture, which includes never leaving the fallen on the battlefield and never forgetting the fallen. This warrior culture provided the motivation for most of the riders, particularly the veterans and active duty military members, to be part of something more important and bigger than them. Like the participating members from the Combat Vets Association, they came together to support the memorial poker run.
For the uninformed, here is a quick description of a motorcycle poker run. A simple concept, it involves riders paying to participate in an event with five stops. At each stop, the rider draws a playing card, which are usually scattered face down on a table. Those manning the card draw then mark down the draw on the rider’s entry form. At the end of the five stops and card draws, the rider has a five-card poker hand marked on the entry form. Commonly the high and low hands receive a portion of the contributions, with the net proceeds going to the designated charity.
On this run, the first and last card draws took place at El Cajon Harley Davidson. Before the dealership opened, Marketing Manager Tina Hook was already there to get everything ready. It was not surprising that El Cajon Harley Davidson supported this run because several employees, including General Manager Brett Dickinson, are veterans. Hook worked with Alford and volunteers to get the tables set up, start registration and provide light snacks.
There were also multiple donated items and services to be raffled off, like a brewery gift card and custom made fighting knives. Tables were arranged in the dealership to display the items, with volunteers from the EOD Warrior Foundation selling the raffle tickets to the growing crowd. The unique sound of motorcycles filled the air as the bikers continued to arrive.
Dispelling the commonly held belief that all bikers are men were Yvonne Rodriguez, Mary Lou English, and Penny Ottman, who had ridden in from Ramona. Saying she loves to ride, Rodriguez (who owns three motorcycles) added, “We need to support our military. All branches.”
Mark Fowler, Christian Motorcyclists Association Chapter President, said the day was a little bittersweet, noting it would have been the birthday of his close friend and event co-founder, Glen Ottman. Describing it as “a great fundraiser for the foundations,” Fowler added we all need to support the military, specifically, “the people that are forgotten most often…those who were hurt or wounded and may not be active in society anymore.”
Fowler also had the distinction of being the lead rider, a fitting role for one of Ottman’s close friends. Also fitting were the sweepers, the final two riders who make sure everyone else gets to the destinations safely. On this day the sweepers were Penny Ottman, Glen’s widow, and Dale Ottman, Glen’s younger brother. Dale was riding Glen’s Harley Davidson.
After some words of appreciation and the safety briefing, the riders headed out.
The first destination was Alpine Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 9578, where bar manager Kimberley Rivera welcomed volunteers Mike Wallace and Shona Cunliffe of the El Cajon Harley Owners Group (HOG), who manned the card draw station. A retired sailor with 22 years of active duty, Wallace indicated they volunteer for most everything, as he and Shona filled out the draws made by the riders.
The next destination was Ramona VFW Post 3783, where canteen manager Dan LaSalle provided space for retired Marine Mike Harris and his wife from the El Cajon HOG to man the card draw station. A retired soldier, which some may consider an oddity in our area replete with sailors and Marines, LaSalle said, “We’re all in favor of anything a vet does, so we support the vets in anyway we can.”
From Ramona, the riders made another card draw stop at the Poway VFW Post 7907 before heading back to El Cajon Harley Davidson for lunch prepared by Big J’s BBQ; music provided by Retired SEAL Master Chief Pat Ellis and the BlueFrog Band; and the charity raffle.
After the last of the riders had returned and enjoyed the lunch and music, Alford gathered those present in front of the tables holding the various raffle items. Prior to beginning the raffle, he explained about Extortion One-Seven and read the names of the 31 American warriors who died that day, then led all in 31 seconds of silence for the fallen. Alford then talked about his friend and event co-founder, introducing Ottman’s widow Penny and brother Dale.
In short order, the raffle was completed. For many, it seemed almost anticlimactic, because the real value in the day had been coming together as comrades to remember the fallen, contribute to worthy causes, enjoy a day in the saddle, and hang out with their fellow veterans and bikers.
This East County centered event was made possible because of all the volunteers, most of whom were veterans or military family members. For example, military spouses Ms. Trisha Snelgrove representing the Navy SEAL Foundation and Ms. Heather Fankhouser-Evans representing the EOD Warrior Foundation. (Fankhouser-Evans is a Gold Star widow who was married to Staff Sergeant Joseph Fankhouser, Marine Corps EOD stationed at Camp Pendleton at the time of his death in combat.) Together, they thanked everyone who came out to support the run and explained how their contributions help our warriors, their families, and veterans.
It was not surprising family military members and veterans stepped up to support a fundraising memorial to the fallen. Doing so is simply another aspect of the military culture.
The contributions had been made, poker run finished, lunch consumed, music played, short memorial to the fallen held, and raffle completed. The 4th Annual Extortion One-SevenMemorial Poker Run was in the books.