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During a past Freedom Run, a couple makes an etching of one of the approximately 8,000 names of soldiers killed in the Middle East since the 1970s. The 17th annual Motorcycle Freedom Run takes place Saturday at the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial in Marseilles.

MARSEILLES — The 17th annual Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run rolls into Marseilles this weekend for a ceremony at the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial along the Illinois River.

Jerry Kuczera, now of Henry, and the late Tony Cutrano, a Navy veteran, started the Freedom Run in 2003 after the death in March of a Marine from St. Anne, Ill., Capt. Ryan Beaupre.

The first ride, in June of that year, included the donation of a plaque at a grade school Beaupre once attended.

“From there we decided to build the wall. After that we were on a quest,” Kuczera said.

They created the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run nonprofit organization, and initially hoped a spot near Grant Park and Soldier Field would be the site for the memorial to all of the military men and women who’ve died in Middle East conflicts.

Later, Morris and Ottawa were in the running for the memorial, and, with assistance a Vietnam veteran Jack Leininger, a friend of Kuczera’s, they considered Marseilles.

Kuczera said the site has been excellent, with the Illinois River flowing past and the Army National Guard training center on the bluff just across the river. He also said the staff at Illinois Valley Cellular (next to the memorial) has been excellent, providing a room to house the artifacts, boots, dog tags and trinkets left by families who visit the memorial to find the names of their loved ones.

The organization has hired the same craftsman from Maurice Monument Co. of Palos Hills to engrave names on the stones every year.

Unfortunately, with U.S. military deaths continuing to occur in the Middle East and South Asia annually, the engraver added about 30 more names to one of the stones last week.

“We’ll be getting near to 8,000 names on the wall,” Kuczera. “We added the last stones two years ago and we fill the space as needed, and we wish and we pray that it would be zero.”

Until the war deaths stop, his group will continue to pay to add names and markers, as needed.

“It’s the only ongoing memorial of its kind in the United States,” Kuczera said.

The nonprofit organization pays for engraving, footing for granite stones, pavers and more around the site, a kiosk to help visitors find names on the wall and helps with cleanup.

In addition, the organization provides single Middle East conflict memorial plaques for all Illinois veterans homes, including the one at La Salle, as well as at all Veterans Affairs hospitals and homes.

To help pay for it all, the organization receives donations and the motorcycle enthusiasts also go to many festivals and shows throughout the Midwest, handing out pamphlets about the memorial and their mission. Kuczera said setting up booths and tables at various shows and conventions also gives them a subtle way to meet Gold Star mothers and family members of fallen soldiers.

Kuczera said their goal is to let them know about the memorial and to bring them to the annual ceremonies at the memorial so they can have some closure. He said they should have the opportunity to meet with other families going through the same thing, and to celebrate, if desired, after the ceremony at Freedom Fest in Marseilles.

Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935 or ntlocal@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_NewsEditor.

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