Country singer Rockie Lynne, who founded the nonprofit Tribute to the Troops organization 14 years ago in Minnesota, appeared in Oldsmar on Saturday for the veterans group’s first ever Florida ride to honor the families of USMC Cpl. Barton R. Humlhanz and US Army Cpl. Frank R. Gross.
The City of Oldsmar has hosted dozens of touching tributes to America’s veterans over the years, including annual Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Gold Star Family ceremonies at its scenic Veterans Memorial Park, plus photo exhibits honoring Florida’s fallen soldiers and special ceremonies designed to pay tribute to veterans.
But on Saturday, March 19, Oldsmar hosted a different kind of ceremony, as dozens of motorcyclists from around the country converged at Veterans Park for the first ever Tribute to the Troops ride in the state of Florida.
Tribute to the Troops is a nonprofit that honors the memories of America’s fallen soldiers by organizing motorcycle rides all over the country and donating the proceeds to scholarships for their families.
The Minnesota based nonprofit was founded by country singer Rockie Lynne as a way to pay tribute to America’s fallen soldiers by traveling to homes of their families and honoring their sons’ and daughters’ memories.
In the 14 years since starting the organization, Lynne said he has “stood in more than 100 living rooms and backyards” around the country honoring those soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
“It’s to pay tribute in honor and remembrance of the fallen,” Lynne told the crowd that had gathered for the ceremony held in recognition of a pair of Oldsmar’s fallen soldiers, USMC Cpl. Barton R. Humlhanz and US Army Cpl. Frank R. Gross.
“It’s to remind the families of the fallen that we’re not the family you chose to be with, but you’re stuck with us, and we won’t let go.”
The solidarity between the 55 cyclists, who came from as far away as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and North Carolina, and the families of the fallen was on full display during the two-hour ceremony, as one by one they came up to say a few words to the parents of Humlhanz and Gross.
With tears streaming down the faces of even the most hardened-looking bikers, the well-wishers bestowed gifts, mementoes, written words and hugs to Don and Michele Carey and Craig and Toni Gross, as Lynne led the proceedings with heartfelt remembrances of their sons.
Rockie Lynn (center) with Toni and Craig Gross.
“Frank R. Gross was 7 pounds and 1 ounce when he was born, delivered by his father and mother,” Lynne said at the conclusion of what was a highly detailed speech.
“He could throw a baseball and strike you out. He could hit a Wiffle ball over to his neighbor’s yard when he was four years old. He was a star on the baseball team in high school and he won a scholarship. He graduated from Full Sail University with a Master’s degree. He was a US Army Airborne Ranger.”
“He was born at eleven-hundred hours on August the 19th, 1985, and he was buried at Arlington Cemetery on August the 19th at eleven-hundred hours, and his father delivered the remains. He was the first to hold him, and the was the last to hold him. Frank R. Gross gave his life for this country, and this is his family.”
Lynne followed with a similar tribute to Cpl. Humlhanz, whom he described as an athlete who loved hockey and inspired others before reading a touching letter from his squad mate, who was spared in the accident that claimed Bart’s life in Fallujah in 2004.
Rockie Lynne pays tribute to Don and Michele Carey, parents of USMC Cpl. Barton R. Hamelhanz, during a ceremony in Oldsmar on Saturday, Mar. 18, 2017.
“I’ve struggled with the memory of the last few moments of your life, and trying to regain those memories that the blast knocked out of me,” Lynne read from the letter by Lnc. Cpl. John T. Pontiff.
“I remember seeing them take you to the bird on the stretcher, and I remember your hand hanging off of the stretcher. I remember feeling them lift your weight off my body after the blast. Worst of all, I remember how guilty and sad I felt when they told me you were gone. I cried for two months. Sometimes I still cry.”
“You are the best marine I know…and I remember I vowed to be the marine that you were,” he continued. “Not to worry, my brother. I will not let you down. I’ll see you on the other side.”
Following the tributes, Lynne invited all those in attendance to form a line and pay their respects.
Afterwards, the Gross and Carey families spoke about the incredibly moving tribute to their sons.
Tribute to the Troops riders from all over the country rode to Oldsmar on Saturday to honor the memories of USMC Cpl. Barton R. Humlhanz and US Army Cpl. Frank R. Gross.
“It was humbling to meet so many people dedicated to our fallen,” Toni Gross said. “With the war ending, often people forget. But this group remembers, and it’s a blessing to us to hear our sons’ names spoken.”
“Rockie was able to tell more about Frank than even Craig can remember,” she added. “He took the time to learn about our sons. Other tributes are fine, but he made it personal. It was shocking. I’m in shock and awe that this group has done this for 15 years with such love and care and responsibility.”
Don Carey (L) and Craig Gross embrace following the Tribute to the Troops ceremony on Saturday.
“It was a great blessing we got today,” Don Carey said. “It’s difficult to put into words. I would never wish this on anyone, but I wish people could feel the love that we got today.”
“Rockie spent so much time getting to know Frankie and Bart out of the love of his heart. It was just amazing.”
For his part, Lynne deflected any credit, saying he considers it his honor to do these tributes for those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
“What I’m trying to do is let these people know what’s missing is their son, their life,” he said, noting he spends roughly one month researching each tribute, including cold-calling former coaches and teachers and reading dozens of articles, bios and write-ups online.
“I think each soldier’s life is unique, and we try to accentuate that.”
Enjoy this photo gallery from the Tribute to the Troops event at Oldsmar’s Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday, Mar. 18, 2017: