Dan Sheppard, Pipe Major

Freedom Trip 2019 (May 31st Post #4)

All the members of Freedom Trip 2019 have met and it looks like we hail from Massachusetts, Maryland, Colorado, Florida, Texas, and Tennessee.


Freedom Trip 2019 along with our friends from the Dublin Police Pipe Band (dark jackets).

We are on the road to Ghent today for our first practice as a band and a little sight-seeing. There are about 40 of us here in a tour bus along with a bunch of instruments, followed by 3 chase vehicles that others have rented. Everyone is in an optimistic mood and seems to have good, positive energy as we anticipate our first group practice. Sadly, today I’m not feeling quite as spry as I had hoped. I have one really bad knee and it’s the better of the two. They have not been my friends with all the walking I’ve done the past 2 days. To make matters worse, I’ve had a few curb and paver trips and stumbles because I’ve constantly been looking up at sights instead of where I’m going. Embarrassing and painful for sure. Soooo, as a result, my right knee is pretty swollen. I’m expecting to sail into a full blown face plant before it’s all said and done. I’m hoping that today’s practice will go really well and help me forget about my “old man” woes.

Ghent: While in Ghent we had a surprisingly good practice…especially when you consider that we are a diverse group coming together from so many different places and playing as a unit for the first time. The Dublin Police Pipes & Drums band guys were in town as well doing memorials of their own so we played them our “Irish set” and got a rousing thumbs up. They seemed like a very fun bunch. They told us that one of their group suffered a heart attack just the day before so several of us offered up our own personal prayers for him. Terrible news for anyone, but especially bad to have a heart attack while you’re traveling outside of your country. That really made me put my ‘ole knees in perspective.

ghent_fsFollowing practice we did what most firefighters would do…we toured the Belgium fire station. Life in their departments vs ours is not very different. Apparatus is different, but the life is the same. We were then taken to the center of town and released to explore the city. Wow, such an incredibly interesting place. Seems as though all cities here have a town square. These squares are filled to the brim with restaurants and beer venues. Grin! I tried the traditional Belgium stew (more like carne guisada than traditional US stew)…and it came with FRIES. Almost EVERYTHING comes with FRIES. Apparently the Belgiums invented fries and they are served with just about every dish. Their fries are prepared a little differently AND they dip theirs in mayonnaise instead of ketchup. I tried it just to try it, but I wasn’t a convert. Pass the Whataburger spicy ketchup please.

To stretch our legs, a group of us decided to visit the local Ghent castle built in 1180AD. This wasn’t a planned thing, but it turned out to be an amazing experience. At the castle we were given headphones with a choice of many different languages. Of course I choose English and headed out. The audio tour took us to many different points of interest and illustrated how the design of the castle served a variety of defensive purposes. Made sense since castles are really all about defense. It was a very interesting tour and a great way to end our sight-seeing time in Ghent. Trying to get back to our “pick up” location, we made a wrong turn off the main square and ended up at the hotel of the Dublin Police Pipe Band. They were boarding their bus to leave. We inquired about their guy and were told that he was doing fine. He got a stint and was expected to be going home in a few days. These guys were an incredible group I wish we could have spent more time with. We shared their good news with our group as we finally met up and began our drive back to Brussels. Next morning will be early checkout and hitting the road again to perform at two memorial services near Bastogne. We will stop by Jack’s Woods and visit the site where the 101st Airborne (Band of Brothers) dug in during the Battle of the Bulge.

Read more about Freedom Trip: Post #1,  Post #2,  Post #3,  Post #4

Freedom Trip 2019 (May 30th Post #3)

Well, my first day in Belgium was incredibly fun but also quite tough due to jet lag. The flight over was not nearly as bad as I imagined (you know, big guy with a bad back and knees, aka “me” sitting miserably for hours in a cramped and confined space). Shelling out a bit more for Comfort-plus seats was well worth it. We experienced a bit of turbulence here and there but all in all the flight was over before I knew it and was pretty uneventful. My traveling buddy Jimmy Hisey and I fared a lot better than many others traveling to Freedom Trip who lost luggage and experienced multiple delays. Of course, once you FINALLY arrive, the idea is to stay awake and not go to sleep too early. That is easier said than done because all you want to do is find your hotel room and sleep the sleep of the sleepity-sleep. Fortunately, there were lots of interesting things to see to keep me distracted. I was excited to meet and spend time with other Freedom Trip participants who I’d previously only met through the Internet. It’s going to be a fun group. One of my friends from the Dallas area who was traveling with his dad, not only had delayed flights and a missed train, but the airline lost his drum. They were scheduled to arrive around 4 pm, but due to these delays, weren’t going to arrive until about 10 pm local Belgium time. With such a frustrating start to their trip, I was determined to stay up to greet them, grab a beer and a bite, and do what I could to help them decompress. After that, my day was done. So far Brussels reminds me a little of New Orleans with their old, historic buildings and old world charm. The architecture is amazing. Once I get my days and nights straighten out I can’t wait to explore more. Regards, Dan

Read more about Freedom Trip: Post #1,  Post #2,  Post #3,  Post #4

Freedom Trip 2019 (May 23rd Post #2)

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.

(L) John Fischer, Capt., Palm Beach County Fire Rescue (retired), and (R) Carl Verstrepen, Belgium Firefighter from Brussels, are the Freedom Trip founders.

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. carl_vet


Carl Vestrepen assisting a WWII hero during the Palm Beach Florida St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

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.

Read more about Freedom Trip: Post #1,  Post #2,  Post #3,  Post #4

Freedom Trip 2019 (May 8th Post #1)


Well, today is May 8, 2019. In about 20 days, I will fly out of Dallas to join a group of United States pipers and drummers and together we’ll spend 12 days in Belgium, Luxembourg and France as members of the official Freedom Trip 2019 band. Our purpose is to provide a pipe and drum band presence at a number of WWII memorial events being held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-day. Our performances will culminate on June 6, 2019 at a D-day service on the grounds of the Brittney American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-James, Normandy, France. This cemetery is where over 4,400 American soldiers, who never returned home, are laid to rest.

For me, this will be a once in a lifetime “bucket-list” experience. I’ll be able to take part in official ceremonies at sites such as Jack’s Woods (where the Battle of the Bulge took place), Sainte-Mére Église and Normandy where the allied troops made their D-day invasion. It is also an incredible honor for me to be part of the Freedom Trip 2019 pipe and drum band. This band is made up entirely of fire and police professionals from across the nation. For many of us, we will begin the trip hardly knowing each other yet sharing the incredible honor of coming together to pay tribute to our WWII heroes on the same soil where they fought relentlessly for freedom and ultimately changed the course of world history during a very dark time. By the end of this trip, those who are already referring to us as a “Band of Brothers” will probably be correct.

I knew the minute I learned of the opportunity to be a part of this group, that it was something I should and needed to experience. Since I made that commitment a year ago, I’ve spent a good deal of time reading and watching documentaries on WWII and in particular the events leading up to June 6, 1944. I have also noted with disappointment how many Americans, especially young Americans today, are shockingly unfamiliar with even the most basic WWII facts. Not long ago, I was telling a young, highly educated medical professional at my doctor’s office about the trip and when I mentioned D-day, she looked puzzled and asked, “What’s that?” I did my best to explain it in a nutshell. After that, I simply encouraged her to do a little Googling on WWII and watch “Saving Private Ryan”.

Anyway, I’m not meaning to sound judgmental, I’m bringing up our nation’s fading memory of the war as a sad fact, not a judgement. I include myself as someone who could have and should have educated myself more years ago. For those of us who didn’t experience WWII first-hand it’s a tough time in history to wrap your mind around. But I will say this. After spending months watching, reading and soaking up a lot of information, the knowledge has changed me. I have always respected and admired those who serve/served in the military but now, after having immersed myself in some WWII history, I simply don’t have the words to describe the depth of gratitude I feel for those soldiers. The tremendous sacrifices they made, their bravery and courage, all the individual stories, all the pain and triumphs seem alive in me somehow in a whole new way.

So, in the hopes of taking one or two of you along with me on my Freedom Trip 2019 experience, I am going to try to journal my time leading up to and including my time “over there”. It’s important to me to attempt to share what I anticipate will be an emotional mixed bag of sadness, triumph, disbelief, respect and pride. I am confident Freedom Trip 2019 is going to open my eyes and I hope you will read along and share in this WWII experience as well.


PS The photo above is of WWII Scottish Bagpiper/Hero John Millin. More on him later.

Read more about Freedom Trip: Post #1,  Post #2,  Post #3,  Post #4