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American Soldier Freedom Riders pay it forward

Thursday, December 5th, 2013 | Posted by

American Soldier Freedom Riders, l-r, Barbara Black Peterson, Donna Kelleher Sexton, Debbie Edens-Wright and Dean Sexton with their horses, Joe, Honey and Blue. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

By MARY JO WINTER / Cloverdale TOWNS correspondent

Three Sonoma County ladies, who have combined their love of horses with their patriotic support of our military,  have become known locally as the American Soldier Freedom Riders.

Affectionately called “the cowgirls,” the group consists of Debbie Edens-Wright, Barbara Black Petersen and Donna Sexton. Each has made it her mission to welcome home returning soldiers, honor the fallen and attend memorials, all while mounted on horseback in a line holding the American Flag.

Founded in December 2010 by Edens-Wright, the American Soldier Freedom Riders believe they are the only group on horseback that honors active duty military in a flag line with send-offs and welcome homes, as well as the fallen at military funerals.

Their Mission Statement notes that Native American Animal Symbolism defines the horse as a “carrier of burdens with stamina, mobility, strength and power.” Horses cope under difficult circumstances, but still provide love, devotion, loyalty and freedom; much like a soldier.

Edens-Wright, who was born and raised in Cloverdale, says she got the idea when her relative Air Force 1st Lt. Matt Crippes came home from Afghanistan for a visit during the holidays in 2010.

“I was handed a business card from Patriot Guard Motorcycle Rider Mitch Laing. When I saw the word “rider” on it, something clicked in me. I knew if motorcycles could do this, so could horses.”

As a former Marine, Edens-Wright is especially passionate about the American Soldier Freedom Riders, not only for her love of horses and riding, but for her comrades.

“I always felt a kindred spirit towards my fellow service members and wanted to somehow get involved.  Discovering that I could merge both passions with an expression of gratitude for those who have laid their life on the line – all while on the back of a horse – solidifies tremendous purpose and pleasure in me.”

Black Petersen says she has been whole-heartedly behind the project since its inception.

“I really wanted to support it in order to thank our military for their sacrifices, but I wasn’t sure how much I could participate. My horses are two hours away from my home in Cloverdale. I have a good horse that I felt would fit in so, despite the distance, I decided to join about a year ago.”

Their attire is best described as “patriotic cowgirl.” They each carry a 3’ x 5’ American flag and wear matching cowboy hats, patriotic bandanas, and blingy jackets and belts, along with suede chaps and cowgirl boots. Their horses have matching patriotic saddle pads, sport boots and glitter. During the holidays, the horses are also decorated with Santa hats and other ornaments.

The women say returning soldiers are often surprised to see patriotic horses as part of the welcoming home committee and love seeing them in the flag line. The impact their horses have on the soldiers and their families is always positive.

Windsor resident Dean Sexton, who carries the group’s banner, says his involvement is his way of giving returning service men and women the welcome home he never received when he came home from Vietnam.

His wife, Donna, joined because “I wanted to make a difference in just one soldier’s life, whether it was for a homecoming, a fallen soldier with his family or a fundraiser.”

The family of Cloverdale Navy veteran and retired fireman Bert Boyce recently requested the Patriot Guard Riders and the American Soldier Freedom Riders to escort his cremains from his home to a nearby pub for a celebration of life and memorial. During the procession, Boyce’s cremains were carried on a Cloverdale fire truck which was surrounded by flag bikes, cars and horses as a final salute.

They also participate in other events, including parades, Toys for Tots drives, Windsor High School’s Military Appreciation Night, Wounded Warrior fundraisers and Cost of Freedom Tribute/The Traveling (Vietnam Memorial) Wall in Petaluma, to name a few

At 9 a.m. next Saturday, Dec. 14, they will lead a procession from the Veterans Memorial Building on the corner of W. 1st and Commercial to Riverside Cemetery where they will serve as a mounted color guard for the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony honoring Cloverdale’s deceased veterans.

For more information about the American Soldier Freedom Riders, visit them on Facebook or call Edens-Wright at 477-5346.

  • Al Delsid

    Thanks girls (and Dean) for all you do. Looking forward to seeing you at Bert’s honor escort and our Wreaths Across America ceremony.

  • Robyn Moss

    Thank you so much gals (and Dean) for all that you do to honor our veteran community, active duty military service members and their families. We salute you and thank you!

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Mary Jo Winter is our Cloverdale correspondent.
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