On the eve of Independence Day, more than 100 people gathered on the darkened sidewalks of Evan City’s Main Street to welcome home a local soldier.
“This is what the Fourth of July is all about,” said Nadine Schorr, who was part of the flag-waving crowd.
Returning from his third tour of duty overseas, 24-year-old Michael McCoy, a Saxonburg resident, was greeted Wednesday night at the Pittsburgh International Airport by about 100 motorcycle-riding members of American Legion Riders from Post 117 in Butler and Post 778 in Lyndora. Also in the procession were motorcyclists from Fire and Iron, a fire service motorcycle club, and some members of Road Dawgs, a police motorcycle club, and the Widows Sons Masonic Riders Association.
The group, which included McCoy’s father, Bill McCoy, surprised the soldier at the airport and acted as McCoy’s escort as he made his north on Interstate-79 and through Evans City on his way home.
“He had no idea this was going to happen,” said Brad Orton, chairman of American Legion Rider’s Military Escort committee.
Orton said Bill McCoy rode his son’s Harley Davidson motorcycle down to the airport so McCoy could ride it home at the front of the procession, which was led by a wailing cruiser from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office. The rest of the riders fell in two-by-two behind McCoy.
"He's the focal point," Orton said.
Upon learning McCoy and company would travel through Evans City en route to Butler, local residents—many of whom learned about the procession through the Cranberry Patch Facebook page—decided to get together to cheer on McCoy as he rode down Main Street.
“It’s a great way to start off the holiday,” said Patty Schorr, who, like her sister-in-law, Nadine Schorr, clapped and waved a flag as McCoy rode by.
"It's very emotional," added Theresa McMaster, a mother of two military sons.
A Cranberry resident, McMaster attended Wednesday's event with several friends who also have children who serve or once served in the military.
"If there had been more notice, we could have had 100 people here," said Karen Coennen, of Cranberry.
Evans City Mayor Gary Foster, a Vietnam veteran, as well as Dean McMillen, commander of Evans City American Legion Post 219, also handed out flags to the crowds gathered on Main Street.
“I’m really proud of the people for as quick of a turnaround as it was,” Foster said.
Orton said McCoy’s dad approached American Legion Riders several weeks ago about escorting his son to Butler County from the airport. McCoy, who has been in the Army for six years, will spend 20 days at home on leave before returning overseas.
“I told him it would be an honor to bring him home,” Orton recalled.
This was the third time the Butler County legion riders, which is made up of veterans and offspring of veterans, has escorted a military member to or from the airport. In April, the group saw off Robert Barger, a young Marine from Eau Claire who was being deployed for the first time.
A few weeks later, more than a dozen of the motorcyclists escorted home Barger’s buddy, Matt Sloan, an Army member returning from a deployment in Afghanistan.
A son of a veteran father, Orton said the escort service is open to any military member. He added many of the Butler County American Legion Riders are Vietnam veterans who were not treated with kindness—and even were spat upon and called names—when they originally returned to the states from war.
This is why members are passionate about giving current military members positive recognition when they return home, he said.
“We vowed we’d never let a returning veteran go through that,” Orton said.
Orton said the motorcade would stop at American Legion Post 117 so members could give McCoy of token of appreciation before he went home to Saxonburg. Members of the Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company also flew a giant flag from the top of its ladder truck—positioned at the intersection of I-79 and Route 228—so McCoy could see it as he entered the area.
Orton said he was touched by the response from residents, particularly as the country readies to celebrate Independence Day.
“It hits you that there are people out there that are still patriotic,” he said.