Kaela Atkins attended one of Wytheville’s first Run for the Wall celebrations when she was in the second grade. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best idea.

“I hated loud noises and motorcycles petrified me,” she remembered.

Too frightened to enjoy the festivities, she stood in the middle of Withers Park and cried.

“That’s when two riders found me, took me over the truck and put ear plugs in my ears,” she said. “They took me under their wing and took care of me.”

Now, more than a decade later, she is still in touch with the two female bikers who came to her aid.

“We wrote letters for a while, but now we talk on Facebook,” she said.

Atkins shared her story Wednesday afternoon as she waited for the RFTW riders to make their 14th visit to Wytheville. Now 21 and pregnant with her first child, Atkins still gets a thrill when she sees the motorcade rolling down Fourth Street toward Withers Park.

“I get excited to see them every year, then, I have to go a whole year before I see them again,” she said.

Wytheville has long been a favorite stop along the Run’s Southern Route, thanks in large part to the southern comfort the town shows RFTW participants.

After a welcoming ceremony in the park, riders dined on steak at the Moose Lodge. Thursday morning, they fueled up on eggs and biscuits at Spiller Elementary before departing with a Main Street parade. Friday evening, they reached their destination, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The annual RFTW journey takes riders across the United Sates for 12 days each May. Run for the Wall’s mission is to promote healing among all veterans and their families and friends, to call for an accounting of all prisoners of war and those missing in action, to honor the memory of those killed in action from all wars and to support military personnel all over the world.

As several hundred riders entered Withers Park, U.S. Marine veteran Michael Jones, aka “General’s Driver,” stood tall and saluted each driver. In a pouch slung across his chest was General, a 9-year-old Papillion who has accompanied Jones on every one of his seven RFTW rides.

“These are for the places he’s been and the patches he has earned,” Jones said as he jiggled key chains, dog tags, pins and mementos attached to General’s sling. “By the end of the summer, he will have been in all of the 48 contiguous states on a Harley Davidson.”

Normally, Jones would have been one of the drivers heading into town Wednesday afternoon, but dental problems forced him to break away from the pack to arrive in Wytheville early so local dentist Claude Camden could work on a tooth.

“We do what we can,” said Wytheville Tourism Director Rosa Lee Jude, who helped arranged Jones’ emergency dental appointment.

“We love Wytheville,” Jones said. “The people are real friendly, they treat you like family. Wherever we go, people are glad to see you and thank you for coming. One of my favorite parts is when we eat at the Moose Lodge; we eat with real silverware.”

Sitting to Jones’ right as the motorcyclists entered town was 94-year-old Fred Hendrick, father-in-law of Wytheville Mayor Trent Crewe. Hendrick stormed Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, during World War II’s D-Day invasion. By the day’s end on June 6, 1944, the Allies had gained traction in Normandy and more than 100,000 soldiers began to march across Europe to defeat Hitler.

Later, retired Lt. Col. Richard Gilliam of San Antonio, Texas, held back tears as he knelt down to speak with Hendrick and hold his hand.

“Any of the World War II vets to me are the heroes of this nation,” Gilliam said. “And there will never be another generation like them. I am honored to be in the presence of any one of them.”

When Crewe introduced his wife’s father, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause.

“This beats anything I’ve seen,” Hendrick said. “A lot of people have been good to me. I’ve done all I can do for the great nation we live in.”

To reach Millie Rothrock, call 228-6611, ext. 35, or email mrothrock@wythenews.com.

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