|A Capitol Idea: N.J. to D.C. Bike Tours Memorialize Officers Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice|
|By Matt Schuman, New Jersey Department of Corrections|
When Senior Correctional Police Officer Michael Drybread climbed aboard his bicycle on a sunny May morning in the parking lot of a shopping center in East Hanover and joined hundreds of other cyclists on a 300-mile ride to Washington, D.C., he knew exactly what to expect. The riders were gathered for the annual Police Unity Tour, and 2018 marked the 11th consecutive year that Drybread was among the participants.
Both the Police Unity Tour and a bike ride sponsored by Law Enforcement United are held as part of National Police Week and climax at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in the nation’s capital, where thousands of riders and support personnel from across the United States and beyond come together; this year’s gathering took place on May 12. The fundraising events honor the sacrifices of law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty.
“During the course of the Unity Tour, there are times when you’re tired, when the weather is far less than optimal,” said Drybread, a member of the staff at the Correctional Staff Training Academy. “That’s when you have to remind yourself why you signed up in the first place. You do this to recognize the 20,000 law enforcement officers who lost their lives while doing their jobs. So you keep going.”
And when you arrive at the memorial in Washington, D.C., Drybread added, emotions immediately come bubbling to the surface.
“You get goose bumps on your arms as you realize that you’re a part of something that’s bigger than any of us,” he related. “When you get to the memorial, you see all the other riders and the families of those who died in the line of duty. If you don’t decide at that moment that you’ll be back again next year, then the significance of what you’re doing has been lost on you.”
SCO Matt Kissane, who works with Drybread at the Training Academy, nodded in agreement. After hearing about the tour from his co-worker, he participated for the first time in 2017 and returned in 2018 without hesitation.
“He’s my partner at the Academy, and I wanted to do this with him,” Kissane said, glancing toward Drybread. “Now that I’ve I experienced it for myself, I plan to keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore.”
Seventeen members of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, representing chapters based in the northern, southern and central regions of the state, participated in this year’s tour.
Additionally, a pair of NJDOC officers took part in the Law Enforcement United journey to Washington, which included a May 10 stop at Bayside State Prison, where cyclists participated in a service in memory of Officer Fred Baker, who was stabbed to death by an inmate on the morning of July 30, 1997.
“Every 15 or 20 miles throughout the trip, we’d stop at police stations or firehouses and take part in ceremonies memorializing individuals who died in the line of duty,” said SCO Chad Friebel, a staff member at Bayside. “Every ceremony was moving, but the service for Fred Baker was special. It was my facility, and the service paid tribute to Officer Baker and his family as well as the Department of Corrections. It also underscored the kinds of incidents that can happen in a prison setting.”
Another highlight for Friebel, who in 2018 joined the Law Enforcement United ride for the third time, was an opportunity to meet SCO Elbert Lewis of East Jersey State Prison, a first-time participant.
“We hadn’t met before, so it was cool that we were brought together by such an inspiring cause,” Lewis said.
One of the topics of discussion for the two NJDOC officers was the level of gratitude displayed by the family members of fallen officers.
“They treated us like we were rock stars,” Lewis stated. “They kept thanking us for what we were doing. The whole time, I’m thinking that we should be thanking them. We’re there for them, to support them and make sure the sacrifices their loved ones made continue to be remembered.”
Those who participated in the Police Unity Tour were similarly moved by their interactions with the families of fallen officers.
In fact, that’s one of the primary reasons SCO Eric Milstein of the Central Transportation Unit was taking part in the tour for the ninth time. A knee injury kept Milstein from participating as a rider, but he unhesitatingly agreed to serve on the support team.
“There is no job on this tour that isn’t an honor to do,” he said. “Every element works together, from the bike riders to the motorcycles accompanying them to the medical staff to the people who pick up the luggage.
“Like so many others, I look forward to experiencing this every year,” he continued, “and not solely because of the participants. The support we get from the department and the union benefits everyone who is involved.”
In addition to financial support of the tour, the union – Policeman’s Benevolent Association, Local 105 – provided a van for the riders.
“The motto of the tour is, ‘We ride for those who died.’ Those words are so meaningful to all of us,” said SCO Michael Tirado, a member of the Central Transportation Unit and financial secretary of PBA, Local 105.
Both Tirado, in his second year as part of the support team, and Milstein alluded to the unmistakable feeling of family that spreads to everyone associated with the tour.
“I’ve gone to places like Texas and Tennessee, where I met up with people I first encountered on the Unity Tour,” Milstein reported. “They’ve taken me into their homes. That’s what this tour does. The best description I’ve heard is that it’s a bike ride with thousands of my best friends.”
Matt Schuman is a former newspaper reporter and editor who serves as the Public Information Office for the NJ Department of Corrections. He has been with NJDOC since 2000.
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