The whir of jets overhead is called the sound of freedom, by those in the Air Force, retired Brig. Gen. Sharon A. Shaffer said.

But since 2014, when Shaffer and a group of motorcyclists escorted the remains of Col. Thomas W. Dugan home to Berks County, another sound has taken on the same meaning for her.

“When I hear the bikes thunder up and roar, that is the sound of freedom, let me tell you,” she said.

Shaffer spoke Sunday at the Reading Motorcycle Club in Oley Township following the annual Ride for Freedom.

Now in its 27th year, the event honors U.S. service personnel missing in action and held as prisoners of war from World War II to the present. 

Sponsored by the Berks Forget-Me-Nots, the ride focuses on the three Air Force officers from Berks County who went missing during the Vietnam War: Dugan, Capt. David E. Pannabecker and Lt. Col. Ralph H. Angstadt.

Shaffer was entrusted with delivering the urn containing remains found at Dugan's crash site in Laos to his family, but because the remains were identified by circumstantial evidence only, the Forget-Me-Nots still consider Dugan missing, said Diane Simmons, secretary/treasurer of the nonprofit.

Simmons of Douglass Township and Bernie Bingham of Earl Township, president, organized the ride.

In past years, the annual remembrance ceremony had been held in Veteran’s Grove, City Park. But when Reading Mayor Eddie Moran placed a temporary suspension on special event permits due to the coronavirus pandemic, some feared it would have to be canceled.

Bingham refused to give up and insisted that somehow, somewhere, the event would go on.

“My motorcycle club stepped up,” he said, thanking members of the group based at 208 Jefferson St.

The event was modified to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, Simmons said.

Rather than an organized group ride, individual motorcyclists followed their own routes on a pilgrimage with stops in Reading, Womelsdorf and Oley, the respective hometowns of the three missing Berks men.

Hand sanitizer was provided at all the stops along the way, and social distancing and face coverings were encouraged,

Riders collected a memorial card at each stop. Those with all three cards were eligible to receive a commemorative patch.

There was no charge to participate, Simmons said, but donations were accepted to help defray the cost of the patches.

As part of the ceremony, the names of the 90 Pennsylvania POW/MIAs from Vietnam were read. Participants were asked to wear cards featuring individual names and photographs around their necks. As the name of each was read, the corresponding card wearer responded “Still missing, sir.”

Shaffer’s voice broke with emotion telling the story of the patriotism exhibited by those along the way as she carried Dugan’s remains to Berks. Many offered their condolences and thanks to his family, she said.

“My experience left me with hope that people still care and understand the importance of never giving up on those who are lost and still missing in action,” she said. “We still have much, much to do to bring those from all conflicts who are still missing back home.”

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