The American flag is a symbol of freedom. To some, it may be a reminder that Veterans Day is approaching, this coming Tuesday to be exact.
But for the Nichols family from Janesville, it’s a daily reminder that freedom isn’t always free and that their son Donny had to pay the ultimate price for our country’s freedom.
“Donny was 21-years-old, ya know, he joined the service knowing that he could be killed,” said Jeanie Nichols, Donny’s step-mother. “He joined knowing that he was going to be deployed, both of our boys did, our oldest boy Joe and Donny both left the same time in October of 2010 and they both knew that they could, ya know, not be coming home. They still did it, knowing that there are people that need to go and defend the rest of us and they chose to be those people.”
Donny Nichols graduated from Waverly-Shell Rock in 2009. Two short years later, Donny was killed in action in Afghanistan on April 13, 2011, while serving his country on active duty with the Iowa Army National Guard.
Ten days after his death on April 23rd, was Donny’s funeral at Waverly High School Gymnasium. Donny was then taken to his final resting place at Greenwood Cemetery in Cedar Falls.
“We were very naïve and we thought it was just gonna be a regular funeral,” said Nichols. “We had no idea the amount of people and the amount of – and there was 600 bikes at Donny’s funeral. Most of them were Patriot Guard Riders and we had no idea that they even existed or what they did.”
The Patriot Guard Riders is a group of motorcyclists across the nation who share one goal: have unwavering respect for those who risk their lives for America’s freedom and security.
“And just showing support to the families and the community for our fallen soldiers,” said Curt Schick, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders.
The impact the Patriot Guard Riders had on the family made it an easy decision for Jeff, Jeanie and the rest of their family to join. They are able to reciprocate to others the overwhelming support given to them.
“The presence of that many people honoring a soldier, it’s just, I don’t know you gotta be a part of it to kinda get that feeling of honor…I’ve seen it on the other side and it was just amazing when we were going from Waverly high school to the cemetery all those bikes and all those flags and it’s just an overwhelming honor…so we just feel that every soldier deserves that,” said Nichols.
For Jeanie and Jeff, Donny’s memory will always live on, or in their case, ride on.
“We had a trike,” said Nichols, “and we were trying to figure out how to memorialize everything that had happened and pay a tribute to Donny.”
So they customized it. With a story. Donny’s story.
“And it starts from 9/11 and it goes all the way up until Donny was brought home,” said Nichols.
One way Donny’s family, friends and this community is keeping his memory alive is through an annual motorcycle memorial ride and poker run that starts in Waverly and goes to the cemetery where Donny is buried. The proceeds are donated to military-related causes such as Retrieving Freedom and Flags for Freedom.
“No soldier oughta be forgotten and especially one that has made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Schick. “And they do a very nice job and donate to a lot of the communities with the benefits from that ride.”
“It’s kinda sad that that’s what it has to take to, ya know, to be more aware but that’s how it is for most people, ya know, unless something is happened to you or somebody you know you don’t really pay attention to it,” said Nichols. “We try to do a lot of this stuff to try to get people to pay attention before something bad happens.”
This Veterans Day when you see the American flag now, don’t just think of a day. Think of a person. Think of Donny. Think of all the men and women that are going out and risking their lives every day for our safety and our freedom.
“I think as a community we just need to honor our soldiers more,” said Nichols.