Rhode Island dedicates its Purple Heart Trail with multi-town motorcycle rally 

WESTERLY – No one joins our armed forces with hopes of bringing home a Purple Heart, but it’s an award all our brave men and women in uniform know they might earn in service to their nation.

The Purple Heart honors those who have been injured in combat, or those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.

“For any soldier, airman, marine or sailor, returning home from combat is difficult,” according to VFW Post 152 Commander Sarah Cavanaugh. “You are unsure of how to exist in the world you’ve returned to, as it is dramatically different from the world you existed in during deployment.”

It’s one of the busiest roadways in Rhode Island during beach-going months, which will hopefully, at least, show local Purple Heart Veterans the depths of the community’s gratitude. The driving hope behind this project, however, has been to connect these veterans with the services and programs available to them.

“Your presence here today honors them, and the memory of who they once were,” Cavanaugh told attendees. “Greatness still lies within them, and it’s our job, as their community, to honor what is left, and to provide purpose to those pieces.”

The Ocean State is home to more than 60,000 veterans, according to Gov. Dan McKee, 1,300 of which have been awarded the Purple Heart for their service. Forty-three percent of those Rhode Island Purple Heart Veterans don’t receive any of the services or supports available to them, according to House Veterans Affairs Chairman Samuel A. Azzinaro (Dist. 37 – Westerly), a statistic that the state is hoping to change.

“I have long been one of those veterans — the ones who wish to fly under the radar, who merely did what was asked, when was asked, and was hopeful that the silver lining of that day would only get brighter as time passes,” Cavanaugh said.

“No one earns a Purple Heart alone,” she added. “I earned mine amongst 11 other marines, all of whom were awarded that medal. Some came home. Some did not. No one came home the same.”

Among her remarks on the history of the award, and the significance of the day,

Cavanaugh also took a few moments to read a poem she wrote in remembrance of one of her comrades who suffered substantial injuries alongside her in Afghanistan. He would later take his own life after returning home.

In 2018, an average of 17.6 of Veterans took their own lives each day in the United States, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. The average number of Veterans lost to suicide each day has remained high, peaking at an average of 18 in 2014, “despite observed decreases in the size of the Veteran population.”

Gov. McKee hopes the dedication of this trail will help “bring awareness to the needs of local veterans, and connect them to programs and services – something that VFW Post 916 Commander Tiger Patrick, the motivating force behind this project, hopes to accomplish — and we’ll partner with Tiger to make that happen.”

“There is not a more powerful symbol of the sacrifices made by members of the armed services than the Purple Heart,” McKee said. “Our brothers and our sisters who put themselves in harms way, and carry the wounds of battle, deserve our deepest respect.”

Azzinaro also recognized the efforts made on Patrick’s part to help make all of this possible, starting with going to all six communities along the trail with the request that they designate themselves as a Purple Heart Town. His efforts started right in Azzinaro’s backyard, before the Westerly Town Council.

“One of the main reasons Tiger began the journey to create the trail was because he realized about 43 percent of Purple Heart 

Veterans are not enrolled in the Veterans Affairs system,” Azzinaro said. “He rightfully was worried about his fellow brothers and sisters in arms, and as the dedicated and patriotic individual that he is, Commander Patrick set out to do something about it.”

“Any Rhode Island Purple Heart Veteran who drives down Route 4 and 1, will know their state is grateful for their service, inwhich they sacrifice their physical and mental wellbeing for a better way of life for all of us,” he added. “They will know that their actions in the name of freedom and democracy are valued, and that we as a state, know that our lives would be far different, probably for the worse, if it had not been for their valued service to our country, and the world.”

Sen. Susan Sosnowski (Dist. 37 – New Shoreham, South Kingstown), Rep. Kathleen Fogarty (Dist. 35 – South Kingstown) and Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee (Dist. 33 – South Kingstown, Narragansett) — all of whom threw their support behind this initiative — were in attendance for the dedication ceremony.

All three legislatures brought personal reasons into their efforts of establishing this trail, and all three of them knew a Purple Heart Veteran first-hand.

For McEntee, that person was her father, who was so badly injured during the Battle of the Bulge in Germany during WWII that a priest had performed last rites. Fortunately, though, he returned home alive.

“He’s no longer with us, but I want to say to all of you Purple Hearts, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you for putting your lives on the line and for all that you’ve done for our country and for our freedom,’” McEntee said. “I can’t say enough about how proud I am of the Purple Heart tribute to all of you, to all the Purple Heart recipients — those to come, those who’ve gone before us and those who are still with us today.”

Some of the most heartfelt and moving words that afternoon came from Rhode Island Veterans Affairs Director Kasim Yarn of North Kingstown, who expressed gratitude towards our brave men and women in uniform. The thought of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for this national brought him to tears as he addressed the crowd.

“These are not tears of joy or tears of sorrow,” Yarn said. “It’s that we’re so blessed to be in the presence of our true heroes — America’s heroes.”

“Returning home injured complicates everything — especially when those injuries are invisible,” she added.

This past Saturday —National Purple Heart Day — Cavanaugh presided over

the dedication ceremonies of the Rhode Island Purple Heart Trail.

In celebration of the momentous occasion, Veterans of Foreign War Post 916 organized a motorcycle rally which ran the entire length of the Ocean State’s Purple Heart Trail. Motorcyclists, many of whom were veterans themselves, rode their bikes all the way down Routes 4 and 1 — which runs from East Greenwich to Westerly.

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