By Jenny Cowan
Driving down Kings Highway on a wet, rainy Monday in October, a crowd of motorcycles appears, filling the parking lot of Rode’s Fireside Restaurant, just outside of downtown Swedesboro.
It’s an unusual sight, especially considering the weather. But on Oct. 13, riders from all over the area met, despite the wet conditions, to honor a man most of them had never met.
The group is called “Warriors Watch Riders.” It’s a loose coalition of individuals all over the country who come together to support our nation’s troops, police, firefighters, and first responders. Regional groups of WWR volunteers provide motorcycle escorts for military units and individual soldiers returning from war, as well as escorts for those being deployed.
The group also participates in honorary rides for those who are retired from service. Volunteers who want to participate are able to keep up to date on these rides, called “missions” on the WWR website. The mission forum states where the “rally point” will be, and whom the ride is honoring or escorting.
In early October, a mission popped up on the forum for a “ride-by” to honor Swedesboro resident Major Gary W. Sackett. The forum explained that due to illness, the retired Army Major was no longer able to receive large groups of visitors, and that the ride-by would show gratitude for his service.
Warriors Watch makes it their mission to honor people like Major Sackett, a resident of Swedesboro since 1991, and a man committed to his family, job, and country.
During his time in the military Major Sackett served with the 101 Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY, and served three years overseas in Germany. Commissioned in seminary, he served as a Lutheran Chaplain until leaving the Army in 1983 with the rank of Major. After his service in the military, Sackett taught himself computer programming and became an I.T. Director at Unique Industries Inc. located in Philadelphia.
Though he was known as a man with copious amounts of energy, in 2009 Sackett was diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis, a condition that damages the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. Though he was able to continue working for a few years, in 2013 he became too ill to continue working, and in August of 2014 he went under hospice care.
For a man with so many friends, it was a difficult change. Accepting visitors became more challenging with each day, and by October, visitors were limited to only the closest friends and family.
It was one of Sackett’s coworkers at Unique Industries, Jeff Novak, who spearheaded the idea of a WWR ride-by. Known as “Jersey Jeff” by the riders, Jeff has been riding with Warriors Watch for a number of years.
Though he doesn’t have a bike, Novak said, “The group welcomed me and my “cage” (car) with open arms.”
Novak, who worked with Sackett for over 17 years, wanted to think of a way to honor his longtime friend, knowing that health restrictions made it impossible to throw a party or encourage large groups of visitors. It was then that Novak turned to the Warriors Watch Riders.
WWR procedures require that missions must be requested by a family member of the veteran or soldier.
Novak contacted Sackett’s wife, Sandy, who was excited to help set up the ride-by. She contacted the organization, knowing that her husband was very proud of his military service, and that it would be a great tribute to him.
“My husband is very ill. His days are very difficult as he depends on oxygen 24/7. Jeff and I thought this would cheer him up and allow him to understand that many people recognize and appreciate his service to America,” she said.
Indeed, over 20 people showed up that rainy October day to pay tribute to Sackett. The group was an eclectic mixture of veterans, motorcycle enthusiasts, and some of Sackett’s co-workers. They all had one thing in common though, a desire to honor a man who had served his country.
WWR New Jersey State Coordinator Tug Devine said it best. Though he doesn’t personally know Sackett, Devine said he participates in the WWR missions because, “They (the soldiers and veterans) deserve it. This is my way of showing my appreciation. It’s the least I can do.”
As state coordinator, Devine is responsible for putting missions on the WWR website and naming a “ride captain” to lead the ride. The ride captain is in charge of gathering the riders together before the mission to explain the reason behind the mission and lay out the route that the riders will take. Though Devine leads many of the WWR missions, he chose “Jersey Jeff” Novak to lead Sackett’s ride-by.
There couldn’t have been a more personal mission for Novak to lead. His first time as captain, he admitted he was nervous, but honored to lead.
As Novak gathered the riders together, he noted that the ride-by had been kept a secret, and would be a surprise to the Major. Novak then shared some of his best memories of Sackett. He noted that even after retirement, Sackett still carried around business cards with his name on them, but on the back Sackett had printed, “Support our Troops.” Novak noted the pride that Sackett had in his country and the armed forces.
He mentioned Sackett’s faith, and the grace with which he had come to terms with his illness. Novak said that in a recent conversation Sackett had said, “I am at peace with my destination, but my journey is becoming much more unpleasant.”
Novak ended the rally by encouraging the riders to make lots of noise, honking their horns and revving their engines. Though the group would not stop by for the customary “mug and hug” to shake hands and greet Sackett, Novak wanted to be sure the group made their presence known. He said, “Let’s show him that he is not alone in this.”
As the riders prepared to leave, some of Major Sackett’s friends headed to their cars. Though they had never participated in a WWR mission before, they had taken time off work to honor their friend.
Elaine Hines, one of Sackett’s coworkers said, “I absolutely love Gary. He is genuinely a good man. He was very dedicated to his work, and he doesn’t ever expect it to come back to him. I think he’ll be emotional today.”
Ray Diekler, also a co-worker and fellow veteran agreed. “There is a certain humility about Gary. I don’t think he’ll expect the surprise today.”
Shortly after noon, the caravan pulled out. Close to 20 motorcycles and “cages”, led by Novak in his black Chevy Tahoe, pulled onto Kings Highway, and then turned to pass by Sackett’s house.
Major Sackett sat in the front window, unaware of the parade that would soon pass by. As the Warriors Watch Riders approached, the sounds of horns and bike motors filled the street, and Major Sackett’s face soon turned into a smile as he waved at the riders passing by his house, many he had never met before.
As the ride came to an end, Novak, acting as ride captain, was charged with honoring Sackett with a special Warriors Watch Honor Coin. The coin, covered in symbols of an eagle, stars, and a rider sitting upon his motorcycle, serves to remind an honoree of the Warrior’s pledge that “never again will an American warrior be scorned or ignored.”
Just 12 days after the ride-by, on Oct. 25, Major Sackett passed away. His wife Sandy said that she knew at the time of the ride-by that the end was near. But she said, “I am so grateful that he got to see his well deserved tribute.” She added that he was buried in a beautiful service with full military honors.
Major Sackett may be gone from this world, but his memory lives on. And the seemingly small act of kindness that the Warriors Watch Riders gave to him in his last days brought a smile to his face that continues to comfort his loved ones as they grieve the loss of a husband, father, friend, and hero.