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Riders honor service of fallen Willmar soldier

WILLMAR -- The roar of 30 Harley-Davidsons echoed through the neighborhood Saturday as a pack of 50 bikers rumbled down Horseshoe Drive in Willmar.

Closer and closer, louder and louder came the crackle of American engines down the road with American flags leading the riders to their destination -- the home of a fallen soldier's family.

As the riders of Tribute to the Troops pulled into the cul-de-sac driveway of Greg and Kimberly Schmit -- parents of the late Sgt. Joshua Schmit -- the thunder of the bikers was nearly matched by the thunder of applause from the family's friends and neighbors in attendance.

The Tribute to the Troops riders stopped in Willmar to pay tribute to the Schmit family and celebrate their son's life and patriotic service to his country.

"It's difficult to put into words all that I want to say," said Mike Lundeen of Lindstrom, the sponsorship chair of the Tribute to the Troops Board of Directors, to Kimberly Schmit. "Your son gave the ultimate sacrifice."

Schmit, 26, a U.S. Army sergeant, was killed April 14 in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee.

The Minnesota-based Tribute to the Troops contacted the Schmits and added their home to a schedule of 18 other stops the organization would make this year.

"This Greg Schmitt (co-founder of Tribute to the Troops) called me about a month ago, and I suppose through the media and the Web sites, they read about soldiers from Minnesota," Kimberly said.

Kimberly was actually supposed to work Saturday, said Jan Hazen, Kimberly's mother. "But anything that honors her son, she'll find a way to take part in it."

After arriving at the Schmit home, the group of 50 riders presented Kimberly with a plaque honoring her son and the same type of flag that each of the riders had flying on the motorcycles.

Hugs and handshakes from the leather-clad army of bikers weren't in short supply either.

"Kimberly and Greg made up fliers and put them in all the mailboxes here because (Horseshoe Drive) is a dead end and it could get noisy when they come," Hazen said about the family's preparation for the visit. "So they did that."

Greg Schmit, Joshua's father, could not attend the tribute because he was at Camp Ripley giving his weekend to the Minnesota National Guard.

But following a barbecue at the Kandi Entertainment Center and a night's stay in Willmar, the tribute on wheels, led by Southern Ride Captain Chris Lind of Andover, traveled to Camp Ripley to have lunch Sunday with Schmit and the National Guard and then continue on to Medina.

In Medina, the riders arrived to a benefit concert starring Rockie Lynne -- a national recording artist and co-founder of the organization -- and other musical groups.

All tickets for the concert go to the military-related charities that Tribute to the Troops has supported for the last three rides.

Lundeen said in past years the organization has raised $18,000 for charities such as Wounded Warriors Hospital Fund, and it hopes to donate $30,000 this year.

"It's the least we can do," Lundeen said about visiting the families and donating to the charities.

The stop at the Schmit home was the Southern Ride's sixth stop since hitting the road Friday morning.

Since the organization's creation in 2004 -- when 45 cycles visited four families of fallen Minnesota heroes -- the Tribute to the Troops has expanded in its fourth annual ride to 150 cycles split up into three regional rides in the state, Lundeen said.

After that first ride, Lundeen said, the organization knew they had to continue in the following years.

"After that first year, we knew were onto something," Lundeen said, whose group of riders last stopped in Farmington before Willmar. "The reaction from the families is what motivates riders to participate."

And in Saturday's case, participation included rain and small motorcycle trouble, Lundeen said. But "We ride rain or shine," he said, and the group travels with a trailer just in case one of the motorcycles has mechanical trouble.

Although the small-scale bike rally was a new experience for the Schmit family, their son has been honored in several other ways too, Hazen said.

With a neighborhood plaque, a planted tree at Willmar Senior High School and a bench in Sibley Park, being honored by the Tribute to the Troops shows just how much Schmit's service was appreciated.

"It's been overwhelming," Hazen said. "He's gotten about every award you can get. ... But it's like you can't honor Josh enough."