One family's support for the troops

At 5:30 p.m. on most Fridays, the parking lot at Carl's Jr. on South Carson Street serves as a staging area for a dozen or so red-shirted, flag-waving adults and children whose message is simple: Support the troops.

Most of the walkers are family members of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua Robert Rodgers killed May 30 when the Chinook helicopter he was piloting was shot down in Afghanistan.

About a month ago, Rodgers' mother, uncle and aunt, cousins and family friends organized the weekly "red-shirt walk" in honor of the fallen soldier and to show support for American troops.

Rodgers' mother and stepfather, Debbie and Ben Walker, make the short drive to Carson City every week from their home in Sunridge.

"When you lose someone like we lost Josh, you're never going to be the same," Debbie Walker said. "This is how we are dealing with this new part of our life."

With flags waving in the breeze, the group walks two miles from the restaurant north on Carson Street to Highway 50 and back again. The round-trip takes about an hour.

The group includes the Walkers, her sister and brother-in-law Susan and Mike McElfish of Carson City, their children and grandchildren and family friends.

Joining them Friday night were Bill Sweetwood of Indian Hills, a Vietnam War veteran, and Tim Van Meter of Carson City, a close friend who spoke at Rodgers' memorial service June 10 at Douglas High School.

The entourage included Riley McElfish, 5 and his 2-year-old cousin Emily Candia of Gardnerville who rode in a wagon pulled by Emily's father Andrew, 22, another cousin.

Mike McElfish, whose son, Matthew, is stationed with the Army in Korea, said the idea for the walks originated after his son sent him an e-mail that troops stationed overseas hoped to see "a sea of red" at sporting events and other activities which would indicate troop support.

"I decided, 'let's take a walk,'" McElfish said.

He bought about dozen red T-shirts and rounded up American flags of all sizes.

The walkers elicited mostly positive support Friday from motorists on their way home from work or out for an evening on the town.

"Usually, it's very positive," said Van Meter as drivers honked and saluted the flag-waving walkers.

"We've had about four negative comments," he said after a driver yelled an obscenity.

Some of the motorists flashed "V" signs.

"Those are peace signs, but we offer it right back as a 'victory' sign," Mike McElfish said.

He said he respects - but disagrees with - opinions of those who say they support the troops, but not the war.

"A lot of these people have no more idea how to run the war than I do," he said. "I wouldn't want someone coming in without a clue and telling me how to run my business. Our country has experts making these decisions."

Rodgers' death has made the close-knit family even tighter.

For the first time, Debbie Walker has a cell phone given to her by her daughter-in-law Casey who is in North Carolina with her three daughters.

Casey Gilder and Joshua Rodgers graduated from Douglas High School in 1997 and were married that October at Trinity Lutheran Church in Gardnerville.

"I never had one of these before," Walker said, holding the pink phone. "But Casey said she wanted to be able to reach me whenever she needed to talk."

The family makes regular visits to Rodgers' grave in Eastside Memorial Park.

"One of his cousins goes almost every week and reads to Joshua," Debbie Walker said. "I told him Josh loved Louis L'Amour westerns and dirt bike magazines and the Bible and that's what he reads to him now."

Cousin Michael McElfish, 29, recently joined the Nevada National Guard.

"I have always been patriotic," he said. "I spoke to my cousin before he was killed and he gave me good advice on avenues to pursue."

Michael McElfish said he hopes to work full-time for the guard, but will start out as a "weekend warrior."

"This helps my family to move forward and live every day as well as honor my cousin," he said. "My ultimate goal is to fly like Josh did."

As the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, Debbie Walker said her son was deeply affected by the terrorist attacks.

"He always had a strong sense of duty," she said. "He delayed entry into the military in the 11th grade. He loved the infantry, but once his first daughter was born he had the opportunity to re-up or get out. Once his little girl was born, he knew he had to be home with his family."

He returned to Nevada and went to work for the state Department of Corrections.

"But after 9/11, he just really felt that sense of duty. We never tried to influence him, it was just what was in his heart," she said.

Rodgers was accepted for chief warrant officers' school and became a helicopter pilot. He and six other crew members died May 30 when their CH47 Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in a nighttime attack.

"I am proud of him as a soldier," Walker said. "But I am extremely proud of him as a father and the man he became. He touched so many lives."

DETAILS

-- Anyone is welcome to join Joshua Rodgers' family members as they walk Carson Street. The entourage meets at the parking lot of Carl's Jr. restaurant on South Carson Street 5:30 p.m. on Friday nights. The walk is two miles and takes about an hour. Information, Mike McElfish, 884-4430.

-- Mike McElfish, Joshua Rodgers' uncle, is looking for volunteers to write letters to soldiers which McElfish includes with vortex flash suppressors he's donating to the troops. The device hides the flash at night when a weapon is fired, concealing the soldier's location. Donations for the devices also are being accepted. Information, 884-4430, or e-mail unclemikeccnv@sbcglobal.net.

-- Silver Oak Golf Development Co. is hosting a benefit 3-11 p.m. Sept. 29 to honor "Nevada's Fallen Heroes." Proceeds will go to the Nevada Patriot Fund for families of deceased troops. The event, at 1251 Country Club Drive in Carson City, is free and includes a classic car/bike show, military equipment, vendors, music, a street dance and fireworks. Information, 841-7000, ext. 1019.

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