ROCKINGHAM — Five Richmond County veterans now have grave markers, compliments of several local motorcycle groups.
Eddie Dean, commander of VFW Post 4203 and vice president of Ol Skool Tribe Riding Club, said it all began last year when Sylvia Smith, sales manager of Richmond County Memorial Park, came to try to sell plots in the cemetery.
While they were talking, Dean said Smith told him about five veterans who were buried in the cemetery but had no marker — some for more than 20 years.
“That touched my heart,” Dean said.
He first approached the VFW about paying for them, but the idea was turned down because of starting a precedent.
He then pitched the idea at the bikers meeting to the four major local clubs: Combat Vets M.C., Playaz Elite M.C., Steel Wheels R.C., and his own club, Ol Skool.
“I said, ‘Guys I’ve got something on my chest I want to share with you,’” Dean recalled. “When I shared it with them, they said, ‘This is your wagon, you pull it. You make it happen, we’re going to support it … We want to do something.’”
William “Bugga” Sturdivant, of Playaz Elite said his club thought it was “a great idea.”
“A bunch of guys in our club are vets, so we were really excited about doing it,” Sturdivant said. “I’m glad they let us be part of it. A great benefit, a great ride, couldn’t ask for much better.”
Dean said he went back to Smith, who was able to get a discount of $225 per marker — down from $695 each. With tax, the total was $1,200.
He went back to the clubs with the price and Operation Tombstone was created.
The ride was originally scheduled for March but was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions on mass gatherings and the VFW Post being shut down.
On Saturday, 85 motorcycles roared out of the VFW Post parking lot on Old River Road on a route planned out by Eddie Nichols of Ol Skool.
In addition to the four main clubs, there were other local and regional riders from across the state and members of Booze Fighters M.C. from Yorktown, Virginia, came down for the ride.
There was reportedly a woman coming from Pennsylvania to join the ride who was injured in a wreck on the way and a prayer was said for her recovery.
The convoy rode west on U.S. 74 Bus. and north on Cartledge Creek Road to N.C. 73 E., then circled back down toward Beaver Dam Church Road to U.S. 1 S. to Wiregrass Road, County Home Road and Clemmer Road before hitting U.S. 74 Bus. again and riding to the cemetery.
The Rockingham Police Department and Richmond County Sheriff’s Office served as escorts during the ride.
The five grave markers sat in front of a star-shaped monument with the seals of the five branches: Army, Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Inscribed on the monument:
IN HONOR OF
RICHMOND CO. VETERANS
WHO SERVED IN
THE U.S. ARMED FORCES
ACTIVE OR RESERVE
IN WAR OR PEACE
AND TO THOSE WHO SUPPORTED
THEM ON THE HOMEFRONT
SOME GAVE THEIR ALL
ALL GAVE THEIR SERVICE
TO SECURE OUR FREEDOM”
Dean recounted to the crowd the story of how Operation Tombstone came about and called out the names of the veterans:
- Cpl. Joe Dellan Anderson, U.S. Air Force, Korea, June 5, 1930-Oct. 24, 2009
- George Robert Brigman, U.S. Army, Oct. 16, 1940-Dec. 29, 2000
- Cpl. Archie Thomas McDonald, U.S. Army, World War II, Feb. 27, 1923-June 20, 2006
- Howard. W. Pitchford, U.S. Army, Korea, July11, 1929-June 13, 1996
- Spc. 4 Michael L. Stogner, U.S. Army, Vietnam, Nov. 15, 1950-March 2, 2010
According to Dean, Operation Tombstone received donations from across the state and out of state, including from a retired sergeant major in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“It was very touching to see the turnout and all the support they gave us,” Dean said. “I really can’t say I’m surprised, because I knew the biker clubs and I knew the people of Richmond County … I was pleased to know that they’d done what I thought they would do, because that’s the way Richmond County is.”
He estimated the ride would generate more than $2,000. The clubs voted to donate all leftover proceeds, after paying for the grave markers, to go towards the upkeep of Richmond County Veterans Memorial Park, across from the VFW, which Dean said costs $2,800 per year.
“Luckily, we were able to make enough money for all the stones,” said Derek Happel, president of Combat Vets, which has a charter in Rockingham and one in Sampson County. “Anything to help out veterans, that’s what we’re here for.”