RACINE — Army veteran Kirk Kauers was watching Racine’s Fourth Fest Pre-Parade on Thursday when he was pulled from his lawn chair and told to stand on the curb.
Bewildered, Kauers complied and then watched as about 50 motorcycles stopped in front of him.
As a big crowd gathered, the riders gifted a folded flag to Kauers, thanking him for his service to our country in a surprise ceremony outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars post, 820 Main St.
“I feel fortunate and I’m shocked,” Kauers, 44, of Racine, said afterward.
The surprise honor was coordinated by the Racine chapter of the Southeastern Wisconsin Harley Owners Group. The chapter has been stopping at the VFW during the Fourth of July parade to give select veterans flags, folded by the American Legion Riders, for three years. Thursday was the first time a veteran was surprised by the ceremony, explained chapter Director Tim Lawrence, 46, of Union Grove.
“We told a big, white lie,” said Lawrence, an operations manager for a trucking company. “We told him he won a contest through the Wounded Warrior Project and got these front-row seats at the VFW to watch the parade.”
Kauers, an Army specialist who served in Afghanistan from June 2010 to June 2011, was selected for the honor in part because he has three Purple Hearts awarded for injuries sustained on duty, Lawrence said.
The first two Purple Hearts are from separate incidents where Kauers’ truck was hit with improvised explosive devices. He sustained moderate shoulder, neck and back injuries, he said.
The third Purple Heart is from another incident where a rocket went through the truck Kauers was riding in. It passed right under his legs and pelted them with shrapnel.
“My leg was bleeding so bad I thought it was gone,” he said. But the leg was there and Kauers recovered after a month in the hospital. “They asked if I wanted to go home and I said, ‘No. I came with the guys. I want to leave with the guys.’ ”
He finished out his tour doing customs work and then returned home.
“It’s been really hard,” Kauers said of the transition to civilian life. “I still watch shows on Afghanistan and I wish I was there.”
The feeling of thinking you’re needed and missing out doesn’t go away, he said.
“That was my calling,” he said. But “I couldn’t re-enlist because of my injuries.”
Kauers needs a shoulder replacement and still limps from time to time. He said he also has post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury from sustaining bomb blast-related concussions. Sometimes he slurs his words and forgets things, he said.
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“I forgot how old I was yesterday,” said Kauers, a St. Catherine’s High School graduate now on disability.
Thursday’s flag ceremony won’t be the kind of thing he’ll ever forget though, he added.
Two other veterans were honored with flags alongside Kauers on Thursday, though they knew about it ahead of time.
Al Winter, a retired 66-year-old of Racine, spent two years in the Marines as a corporal and 31 years in the Air Force reserves, reaching the rank of master sergeant. He served in Vietnam.
Shannon Heberling, 41, of Dover, is a Navy reservist and chief petty officer. Heberling also works for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs as the coordinator/team leader of funeral military honors activities.
Fourth Fest Parade winners
Grand Prize (Ken Weill Award): SC Johnson
Tex Reynolds Award: Gup’s Westside Service
Charles Arnold Award: Racine Art Museum
Edna Christensen Award: DeRango’s Pizza
Best Marching Band (Fredrick Schulte Award): Lighthouse Brigade
Best Drum Corps (Robert Bohm Award): Racine Scouts
Source: Mark Chaffee, Fourth Fest Parade awards chairman