Motorcycle riders kick off Freedom Fest

Freedom Fest raises over one-half million dollars for vets

Hundreds of bikers gathered outside UW-La Crosse’s Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex for the Freedom Fest Motorcycle rally and ride Saturday morning.

“We’ve been coming to Freedom Fest each year since we lost Jacob,” motorcycle rider and Beaver Dam resident Greg Gassen said. His son Jacob died in Afghanistan in 2010.

“You can imagine when I pulled in here today, it’s pretty emotional for me,” he said.

Since then, his family has actually grown.

“We’re all part of an unfortunate family, and that’s the Gold Star family, so this means a lot to us to come here and be around people who care and really get it,” he said.

Gold Star families, named after a red flag with a gold star, have all lost a soldier.

“A blue star meant they were in combat. Then if they got killed, they’d put a gold star on top for the blue star,” Gassen said.

The Gold Star families make up just part of the sea of support at the Freedom Fest motorcycle rally before the ride.

“It’s all about veterans and veterans’ causes, and people who have fought and died for our freedom,” rally organizer Gary Rudy said.

Many at the rally were veterans.

“I’m a Navy vet, myself,” La Crosse resident and biker Alex Chester said.

And they enjoy biking for the same reason they’re grateful for those who have served our country: Freedom.

“(We’re) just out there enjoying what we have,” Chester said.

Gassen has another reason he rides.

“Riding is therapeutic for me, especially since I lost Jake,” he said.

Greg carries with him a few reminders of his son, including the same tattoo Jake got before dying overseas.

“I’ll always grieve Jake’s death, there’s no time limit on that,” he said. “But, over these past few years instead of grieving all the time, we try to celebrate his life, and this is part of that celebration, just coming here to be around people who get it.”

Another reminder Greg has of his son is his iPod full of music, so Greg is able to bring Jake along for the ride.

“I plug it in and go down the road and let it play randomly, so it will play his music as well as mine,” he said. “It’s part of that celebration and being with all these people here today.”

The bikers’ route was longer this year than in previous years, but the motorcyclists got back in time for the musical entertainment, which includes OAR and Lynyrd Skynyrd, along with a Fallen Heroes presentation.

Pat Stephens, who is on Freedom Fest’s operations council, said the whole festival raised upward of a half-million dollars this year, and will go toward veterans’ causes like scholarships and the Hall of Honor underneath the stadium. He said the focus of this year’s fundraising was for the USO.