Karl Odenthal rolled past the finish line of the Police Unity Tour in Washington, D.C., to scores of people yelling and cheering the cyclists finishing the 250-mile trek.
But thousands more were looking on without saying a word as the bikers passed the names of more than 19,000 U.S. law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty that are etched into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers' is now one of them.
The tour began in 1997 to bring awareness to law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty and to honor their sacrifices. What started with 18 riders on a four-day ride has grown to what was 1,700 riders this year.
To take part in the tour, a cyclist must have some tie to an officer killed in the line of duty. Odenthal, a lieutenant with the Aiken Department of Public Safety, rode in honor of his fallen fellow officer Sandy Rogers.
Rogers was shot and killed Jan. 28, 2012, while investigating a call about a suspicious vehicle in Eustis Park. She was the second Aiken Public Safety officer killed in the line of duty in as many months. Master Public Safety Officer Scotty Richardson was shot on Dec. 20, 2011, and died the next day. His name was placed on the memorial wall following last year's tour.
'I felt like I could have kept going'
Odenthal, who is the first Aiken officer to participate in the tour, signed up but was originally put on the waiting list. That changed after he sent tour officials a “passionate” email in which he told them about Rogers, how he was her immediate supervisor and how much it'd mean to ride for her.
Odenthal and about 200 riders from his regional group rode 250 miles from Portsmouth, Va., to the nation's capital, beginning May 9. The first day, the riders biked 112 miles; the second day, 70 miles; and they finished it out on the third day.
The terrain for the first leg was relatively flat, according to Odenthal. The second leg had some “bigger hills.”
“The third day, it was just hill after hill after hill,” he said. “We hit hills for, basically, three and a half hours on the third day. It was a little taxing.”
Odenthal said he'd spoken with other people who'd completed the race before and got advice. He began training in January when he found out he'd been accepted as a participant.
“The only thing I was a little concerned about was, how were group riding dynamics going to affect my ride,” he said. “It ended up being a positive thing.”
Odenthal said cyclists got to talk with each other while riding.
“You're kind of riding in pairs, and then you'd do a climb,” he said. “Say someone wasn't as fast as you in the front; they drop out and then the whole line would shift. Now you're next to somebody else and you're talking to somebody else. I got to meet a lot of really neat people.”
The race ended at the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, where several from other officers from Aiken, including Chief Charles Barranco, the Honor Guard, officers from Rogers' B-shift and members of Rogers' family, were waiting.
“It was nice to have people I knew at the other end. They were there by Sandy's name on the wall,” Odenthal said. “Just to ride in there and see them, it was exhilarating. It didn't feel like the end of 250 miles. I felt like I could have kept going, it was that kind of euphoria. You're excited, you had the crowd cheering, it was slam-packed. There were bikes as far as I could see forward and bikes as far as I could see back.”
There were multiple ceremonies during the week honoring fallen officers, according to Odenthal. During one, the survivors (family members and spouses) of slain officers placed a rose into a wreath, which was guarded in shifts by multiple honor guards, including Aiken Public Safety's.
'This is where their legacy is'
Odenthal spoke with some of the survivors and asked them what the memorial wall meant to them.
“They all said the same thing,” he said. “'This is a spot where I can go to remember my husband.' They both knew their husbands died doing what they loved doing. It was a common spot in D.C. where they're honored nationally, rather than just a grave site. This is where their legacy is.”
Many people left flowers, personal effects or notes by the wall.
“Letters from kids to their dads – just things like, 'I miss you, Dad,'” Odenthal said. “It was shocking to me, to see the number of kids without dads – little kids.”
The ceremonies included speeches by President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Classes and workshops were available for officers and the survivors of fallen officers. Odenthal said some of the tactical workshops included psychology and physiology of combat, computer forensics and a knife class, while the survivors received help coping with the loss of their loved one.
“Everything from managing their life without their spouse, counseling – they had everything,” Odenthal said.
Seeing the memorial and the reactions of those in attendance was “a struggle to keep your emotions in check,” he said, but seeing how it helped the survivors of the fallen officers was comforting.
“For them, it wasn't as much about financial assistance and things like that as it was an everlasting memory of their husbands,” he said. “His name will be on there forever.”
Odenthal said he wants to thank the residents of Aiken for their donations and support to make his journey possible. He was recognized as one of the top nine fund raisers in his chapter of 200 participants.
“There was tremendous support from the City of Aiken, and the majority of what came in were individuals,” he said. “A lot of guys got corporate sponsors, and mine were all people. They were all individuals. … I couldn't have done it without them.”
• Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.