Marine raises money across country

Bill Conner Delmarva photo 6.1.11
After putting his back tire in the Pacific Ocean to start the trek, Maj. Bill Conner gives a thumbs-up as he puts the front tire in the Atlantic. Photo by Nick Roth/The Daily Times

By Alyson Cunningham | Delmar VA Now | Delmarvanow.com | June 1, 2011

 

BETHANY BEACH – On his bicycle journey across the country, Marine Maj. Bill Conner’s friends were never far from his thoughts.

 

“A lot of times when you have a tail wind, the (American) flag will be tapping you on the shoulder,” he said about the flag that was flown in Iraq by Maj. Doug Zembiec, who was killed in 2007 during combat. “Anytime I felt the flag tapping me on the back, I always thought of Doug just tapping me on the shoulder and saying,’Hey, keep on going.’ ”

 

Conner cycled 3,113 miles from San Diego to Bethany Beach to raise money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, set up to provide immediate financial support for injured and critically ill members of the military and their families. He ended his trek on May 27 by dipping the front tire of his bike into the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Conner set out on Easter Sunday with a goal of raising $35,500 through the Semper Fi Ride Across America campaign. As of Monday, donations totaled $30,816.

 

“I think it’s important for us to remember and honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “It’s also important for us to take care of those Marines and other service members who have been injured, some of them with life-changing injuries.”

 

Zembiec, along with Maj. Megan McClung and Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kristensen, were Conner’s classmates at the Naval Academy who died while serving in the war.

 

“I thought about them often and I thought about (their) parents often, especially with this being Memorial Day weekend,” he said, noting that he visited all of his friends’ parents along his journey.”(The McClungs) were going down to Florida and they timed their trip (so) they actually surprised me in Anna, Ill. It was great to see them along the routes.”

 

Conner has been deployed to Iraq five times and returned from a year-long deployment to Afghanistan in March.

 

Ocean View resident Carol West met Conner 20 years ago, when she and her husband became his sponsor family at the Naval Academy. The program provides a home away from home for midshipmen during their plebe year.

West said Conner, an Oklahoma native, refers to them as his “East Coast Mom and Dad.”

 

“Sometimes people ask me how many children I have and I say ‘Four, oh no, wait, three,’ ” she said as she waited for him along Garfield Parkway, an American flag in hand. “We’re very proud of him.”

 

Conner said he’s thankful for all of the support he received on his trek, which took him through New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland.

 

His favorite memory of the trip was surprising his mom on Mother’s Day in Tulsa, Okla., he said.

 

“It’s been a great journey and I’ve met some great people along the way,” Conner said. “America is a beautiful country; it’s just been a very positive experience.”

 

Bradford Bingham met Conner through his brother, who also attended the Naval Academy. The New Boston, N.H., resident said he wanted to let people know about Conner’s efforts because it’s a great cause.

 

“I have always been moved by Bill’s dedication to raise awareness to the plight of the wounded Marines when they return from the combat zone,” he said. “Instead of taking the time to enjoy his leave with family and friends, he chose to ride his bike 3,000 miles to honor his fellow servicemen and -women.”

 

Conner was scheduled head back to Camp Pendelton, Calif., on today before “going back to work” He said it’s amazing to see people still signing up to join the military.

 

“It’s easy to forget sometimes that all the service members raise their hand and they volunteer,” he said. “It’s incredible to serve with these great young Americans who know when they sign up where they’re going.”

 

Ending the ride on Memorial Day weekend made the trek more meaningful, Bingham said.

 

“It will hopefully remind people, for lack of a better term, the reason for the season,” he said.

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