In many ways, World War II is a history lesson that teaches the power, potential and possibilities of allies. Now, if you will, hold that thought.
Since my first Freedom Trip post, several people have asked me about the group itself. Are the participating Freedom Trip pipe and drum band members veterans? How many times has this trip been made? Basically, what’s the history, what’s the story? I’m embarrassed to say, but until I started fielding these questions, I truthfully did not know. So, I made a few calls this week to the group coordinators to get myself educated, and what I learned was that Freedom Trip 2019 is another story of allies, and a pretty fascinating story at that. Two individuals from different countries, united by their patriotism, respect and friendship, have created a tradition that is still evolving. Here is my best effort at telling the story of the Freedom Trip allies.
The story begins with Carl Verstrepen, the first ally of this story. Carl is a Belgium firefighter, EMT from Brussels. He is also a board member of the non-profit group called Fire Observers and has served in that capacity since 2003. Fire Observers was created after a group of Belgium firefighters traveled to Bakersfield, California for training purposes with the Kern County Fire Department. For the duration of a week, the Belgium firefighters ran emergency calls with the their U.S. brothers and sisters and in their off hours, enjoyed local sites and experienced a bit of American culture. It was such a successful trip, that a second trip to San Diego, California was set up for the following year and “Fire Observers” was officially born to keep the yearly experience ongoing. Every year since, Belgium Fire Observers have trained with many different agencies throughout the United State. Carl began organizing and coordinating these trips in 2004 and has been doing it ever since.
During a Fire Observers trip in 2011 to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, Carl met John Fischer, the second ally of this story. John, was a Captain with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. In addition, he was an accomplished bagpiper and also involved in coordinating the annual Delray Beach St. Patrick’s Day Parade. John and Carl hit it off during that first visit and John invited the Fire Observers back the following year to participate in the Delray Beach parade, which they did. Generally each year, John had uniformed service personnel lead the parade, but in 2012, his vision was to have WWII veterans lead the way. Because of their advanced age, John arranged for the veterans to be pushed in transport chairs by uniformed personnel with the remaining uniformed officers and a large pipe and drum presence, following directly behind.
When Carl learned of John’s plan for the veterans, he asked John for the honor of being chosen to accompany one of our WWII servicemen during the parade in that capacity. It was this simple idea of “putting the veterans first” that would later lead to what is now known as the Freedom Trips.
(And as an aside, Carl struck up a special friendship with the WWII veteran to whom he was assigned. True to Carl’s nature, that friendship continued long after the parade was over. Carl called the elderly man regularly on the phone and maintained their friendship until his passing. Carl, along with other Belgium Firefighters, have been returning to participate in the Delray Beach parade every year.)
In 2016, John traveled to Belgium to visit Carl. Carl had told John to pack his dress fire department uniform (Class A’s) but didn’t tell him why. As a surprise, Carl took John to attend the WWI Memorial Day Ceremony at Flanders Field American Cemetery where 411 American WWI soldiers are buried or commemorated. The ceremony was very moving and John was struck by the genuine outpour of honor, respect, and gratitude that the Belgium people continue to show OUR fallen soldiers who helped liberate them in both world wars. John and Carl both wished there was more of an American presence at the memorial. Carl and John noted that the 100 year anniversary of the end of WWI would be in 2018. Motivated by the Flanders Field memorial, John and Carl began planning and working on a trip to again “put veterans first” and Freedom Trip 2018 was initiated. It was John’s background as a bagpiper that lead to the idea of having American pipers and drummers travel and participate at various war memorials in Belgium and France.
After a tremendous amount of coordination and planning, Freedom Trip 2018 took place. About 30 members of Nassau County Long Beach Pipes & Drums, and a few others from around the US took part in this first trip. The group visited and performed at numerous places including another very emotional memorial service at Flanders Field American Cemetery remembering the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. Through a well thought-out mixture of performances and tourism, (much like Carl had coordinated with the Belgium Fire Observers), Freedom Trip 2018 was a huge success.
Following the high of 2018, Carl and John were extremely motivated to to organized a Freedom Trip 2019 for the 75th anniversary of D-day but Nassau County Pipes & Drums said they just couldn’t commit to leading again so soon. As it turned out, Mike West, from Colorado Emerald Society (CES) Pipes & Drums was one of the “few others” along for Freedom Trip 2018. Mike stepped up and said he would present Freedom Trip 2019 to his CES band. They agreed to be the lead band, but only had 10 band members able to take the trip. In an effort to recruit more pipers and drummers to participate, John Fischer put a notice out nationally via social media and listed the CES band as the lead / host band. It was through John Fischer reaching out to other firefighter/police pipers and drummers that I heard about Freedom Trip 2019 and got on board as quickly as I could.
So there it is, the Freedom Trip history in a nutshell. A story that teaches the power, potential and possibilities of allies. I raise a pint to Carl Verstrepen and John Fischer for the opportunity their combined friendship and patriotism (along with an enormous amount of work) has created. What an honor it is to be a member of Freedom Trip 2019. For me, this will be a trip of a lifetime and one I hope will help the Freedom Trip tradition thrive.
PS: Just fyi, in talking to these guys, Carl and John each stated the other was the one who did all the work.