Sumter resident Jimmy Shuping remembers a time when military veterans weren’t as celebrated as they are today.
“When them boys came home from Vietnam, it was ugly,” he said Wednesday. “Just ugly. They weren’t treated with any respect.”
Shuping said an escort from Santee to Sumter by more than 300 bikers for the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, and the greeting from locals along the way, was “the homecoming these boys listed on this Wall never got.”
“I really was crying the whole way,” said Shuping, chaplain for the Christian Riders biker ministry. “It was the perfect welcome home to these guys on the Wall. To just see the people out on the street waving like they were, with the flags and all of that, I’m thankful that I got to be here for that moment.”
Barbara Smith Shumpert, who lives on U.S. 521 between Sumter and Manning, decked her yard in Army Strong, Blue Star and American flags. She was inviting friends to her home as early as four hours before the wall passed by her.
“I was humbled to have a small part,” she said. “Humbled by the police who sounded their sirens when they saw us by the road with our flags, (and) humbled by the riders who waved and saluted when they saw (the flags) that we were waving in our driveway.”
Shumpert was not alone. People crowded overpasses, driveways and sidewalks from Santee’s rest stop near Exit 98 on Interstate 95 all the way to West Liberty Street in Sumter to get a glimpse at the trailer carrying the wall and the dedicated bikers and police who escorted it.
“It was unbelievable,” said Tech. Sgt. Caleb Nicholas, a member of Chapter 58 of the Green Knights Military Motorcycle Club of Shaw Air Force Base that organized the motorcycles for the event. “I don’t have a final number, but I know we had more than 300 bikes.”
Greg Welsh, who transported the wall from its home in Cocoa, Fla., said it is one of five that travel independently throughout the nation.
“I think the turnout was great,” Welsh said. “This one here was built in 2005 and first shown in 2006. I expect we’ve racked up more than 120,000 miles in six to seven years of traveling heavy.”
The Wall will be on display from Friday after an opening ceremony at 5:30 p.m. through Monday as one of the centerpieces of the Iris Festival. Welsh said it is a scaled-down version of the Vietnam Memorial Wall from Washington, D.C., and that it will stretch from the Iris Market toward West Liberty Street.
He said the 10,000-pound wall is made from aluminum, not stone like its original. “This is our first time in South Carolina, so we’re excited to be here,” he said.
Patriot Guard Riders of Charleston’s Gary Sweeny said it was an honor for him to be one of the lead bikes in Wednesday’s procession. Bikers met at Santee’s rest stop about 12:30 p.m. and set off an hour later. They arrived at Swan Lake about 2:45 p.m.
“You know, we got this freedom that we have, the one to ride our motorcycles here today, because of those guys on that wall and all the men who gave their lives in other wars,” said Sweeny, who served in the military from 1971-73, though not in Vietnam. “It means a lot to me, because not everyone on that wall has ever returned. We’re here to pay homage to them and let the country know we care about them and they’re never forgotten.”
Staff Sgt. Scott Shinn is stationed at Shaw Air Force Base and “rode down to Santee” with other military friends.
“I’ve never heard of (the Wall) coming through Sumter before, so I thought of the opportunity,” he said. “It’s probably not going to happen but once, so I figure I’d take a ride with it.”
Staff Sgt. Kenneth Fearon of the 79th Fighter Squadron at Shaw said “it was good to see the community support what we do in the military and what has been done before.”
“I serve in the military now, and I came out today because I want to honor those who came before me,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing to see how everyone came out to support the Wall escort. And it was great to see the vets on the road saluting us and the families waving as well.”
Adrienne Kansiewicz was one of those waving supporters. She stood outside Swan Lake with neighbor Beverly LeBlanc as the bikes pulled into the park and back out toward the Sumter County Civic Center.
“We came out this morning, and we knew the motorcycles were coming through but not when,” said Kansiewicz, whose husband is stationed at Shaw. “It was really awesome to be able to see it. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole thing this weekend.”
So is retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Gene Meadows of Sumter. “You get chill bumps just seeing it (the procession and Wall),” he said. “I’m definitely going to come back this weekend.”
Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Paul Siegel, however, said he will attend both the opening ceremony on Friday and the Memorial Day services on Monday, but he will not look at the Wall.
“I knew enough (Vietnam veterans), let’s put it that way, so I don’t go to the wall,” Siegel said, tearing up. “You cannot explain the raw emotion and feeling when them bikers are coming down the street like that. You cannot explain it. It’s awesome.”