As Don Blanchard explains, it is something that had to be done.
“I had to do something, I’ve got a big empty spot,” he said, placing his hand over his heart.
That “something” will take him on a motorcycle journey of at least 12,000 miles and touch all four corners of the country.
It will also raise money and awareness for the charities that stood by his family after his son, Aaron, was killed in Afghanistan this spring.
On Saturday morning, surrounded by family, friends and members of the Patriot Guard Riders, Blanchard, 58, and longtime friend Bruce Stanley, 73, set off from Yakima on a trip that is expected to take to them to Maine, Florida, Arizona and California before returning home.
Last week, Blanchard and other family members took a moment to share their thoughts as he prepared for the trip.
Sitting at a table in his house on the outskirts of Selah, Blanchard wore a blue shirt that read “Home of the free because of the brave.” Tucked beneath the shirt were dog tags with a laser-engraved image of Aaron. A black, metal bracelet bearing Aaron’s name, as well as the date and place of his death, was wrapped around his right wrist.
Capt. Aaron Blanchard, 32, was killed in Logar Province in eastern Afghanistan on April 23 when a volley of mortar fire exploded near the tent he was in, killing another soldier and badly wounding a third. He’d been in Afghanistan just one week.
“It’s nothing a parent should have to go through,” Don Blanchard said, his eyes welling. “I’m supposed to kick the bucket first.
“Aaron has been wanting to fly since he was that high,” Blanchard said, lowering his arm to about 3 feet from the floor. “He worked hard to get there.”
Aaron had served two tours in Iraq as a Marine and then completed ROTC at Central Washington University before serving in the Army as an Apache helicopter pilot.
He was the oldest of three sons to Don Blanchard and Laura Schactler, as well as a husband to Becky and father of Hunter, 5, and Amalia, 2. Becky is in the process of moving to Gleed, along with the couple’s children.
Though divorced, Laura and Don have been supportive of one another since Aaron’s death.
“This is (Don’s) purpose, this is something he can make a difference,” Laura Schactler said in a telephone interview. “It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful adventure. He’s getting so much support.”
Still, the family is struggling to cope with Aaron’s death.
“It comes and goes,” she said. “Sometimes I can talk about him and we can laugh, and sometimes I can hardly breathe.”
Don expects the trip to take about 57 days, covering as many as 15,000 miles on his Harley-Davidson. Much of the journey is still unplanned. But that’s the way he wants it.
“Just head out and be free, not have any worries. Get the wind in my face,” Blanchard said. “We’re gonna wake up in the morning, pick a destination; call a hotel or person that’s reached out and touch as many people as we can — let them know who Aaron was.”
They’re riding in the name of four charities that help veterans: the USO, Fisher House Foundation, Wounded Warrior Project and Patriot Guard Riders.
“When his casket came back from Afghanistan (the USO) did so many things for him,” Laura Schactler said.
After the Army arranged flights for Aaron’s family to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the USO met them and hurried them through lines and provided them with a place to rest as they waited for their flights, she said.
The Fisher House Foundation provides free, temporary lodging to families of hospitalized military men and women. The Fisher House in Dover, where Don and Laura stayed, is unique in that it is specifically for families of fallen soldiers. Don said it was “magnificent.”
“The rooms were awesome. The kitchen was full of food. Anything we needed was asked and they gave it to us,” he said. “It took a lot of worries from the travel away.”
The Patriot Guard Riders were at Aaron’s memorial in Fort Drum, N.Y., to provide security when members of Kansas-based church threatened to protest at his funeral as it has done at others. The Patriot Guard Riders were at Saturday’s sendoff at Owens Cycle.
Don said he’s also raising money for Wounded Warrior Project because of the respect the organization has from the veteran community.
The amount of money he raises isn’t important, as long as he can help the four charities.
“It could be a hundred dollars or a million dollars, it doesn’t really matter,” Don said. “It’s all about helping these groups.”