WESTERLY, R.I. — A motorcycle procession of veterans and their families inaugurated the Rhode Island Purple Heart Trail on Aug. 7, making a trip from East Greenwich down Routes 4 and 1 to Westerly, where an official dedication took place.

It’s the culmination of several years of work by veterans, especially Wakefield VFW Post 916  Commander Joe “Tiger” Patrick, and state legislators to get the state to approve the designation.  

A barbecue cookout with live music, keynote speakers and resources for veterans were part of the dedication that took place in the parking lot of the local Elks Club, just across the street from the Westerly Armory.    

Aug. 7 marks National Purple Heart Day, and Gov. Dan McKee joined the ceremony in Westerly to give remarks about the state’s new trail honoring Purple Heart recipients.

“To all our veterans, I simply say thank you,” McKee said. “At some point, every American had a loved one or friend in the military.”

McKee said he considers it a duty that the state should honor the sacrifices and service of veterans.

“There is no more powerful symbol of the sacrifices made by members of the armed services than the Purple Heart. Our brothers and sisters who put themselves in harm’s way and carry the wounds of battle deserve our deepest respect.”

Unlike other military awards and honors, the Purple Heart is reserved for those who were killed or injured in combat while in the line of duty.

The oldest of the military medals, it was first given during the American Revolution by George Washington, originally for combat valor. It was revived in 1934 to honor veterans injured or killed in action.

The Ocean State is home to more than 1,300 Purple Heart veterans according to Patrick, but an estimated 500 veterans are not receiving any services through the Veterans Administration.

U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Sarah Cavanaugh, the host and presenter for the event, shared a personal experience and poem about her experience serving in Afghanistan, where she and 11 other Marines earned their Purple Hearts.

“Some came home, some did not,” Cavanaugh, commander of VFW Post 152 in North Kingstown, said. “No one came home the same.”

Cavanaugh said returning home from combat is difficult for any soldier, airman, sailor or Marine.

“You are unsure of how to exist in the world in which you return to, as it is dramatically different from the world you existed in during deployment,” she said. “Returning home injured complicates everything, especially when those injuries are invisible.”

Tearing up, Kasim Yarn, director of the state’s Veterans’ Affairs and a North Kingstown resident, recalled often feeling safer on deployment on a ship than at his home.

“I am with 276 of the finest Americans defending this nation. It’s humbling,” he said.

Gold Star families, he said, motivate him to “give a little bit more, when you think you’re down, what gives you the inspiration to keep digging, to keep fighting for others.”

The Scripture, he added, “teaches us that there is no greater blessing than a man or woman that’s willing to sacrifice their life for the sake of others. Just let that resonate.”

McKee said the new trail will bring awareness to the needs of local veterans, and connect them to programs and services.

“Something that Tiger Patrick, the motivating force behind this project, hopes to accomplish. And we’ll partner with him to make that happen,” McKee said.

It was just last month that Patrick completed a one-man walking trek on the route, clutching a pole with an American flag and wearing a Purple Heart Trail sign strapped to his back.

The signs have been put up along the highway, from the Showcase Cinemas area of Route 4 in East Greenwich and through North Kingstown, to Route 1 in South Kingstown, Narragansett, Charlestown and Westerly to the Connecticut border.

He’s also been involved with the creation of the trail designation from the start.

Patrick worked with state Reps. Carol Hagan McEntee, Kathleen Fogarty, who both attended Saturday’s event, and other officials from the towns along the Purple Heart route to make it a reality. Much of the work took place last year and early this year, while the COVID pandemic had shut down most in-person meetings.

With Westerly and North Kingstown already on board as Purple Heart Towns, in a matter of months Patrick was able to work with local leaders in the other four communities to declare themselves Purple Heart communities as well.

When he turned to legislators to see about having Routes 1 and 4 declared as the state’s Purple Heart Highway, they were eager to help. The General Assembly approved the measure last year, and Gov. Gina Raimondo signed it into law.

State Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, New Shoreham, South Kingstown), a sponsor of the legislation, comes from a military family.

“My husband Mike is a Vietnam Navy veteran, our oldest son Ron enlisted in the Army, served two years in Korea, then became a member of the Connecticut National Guard, has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has served 26 years, and now he’s an E-7 Sgt. First Class, and I’m so proud of him.”

Other relatives served and some were injured in combat, she said.

“I’m just so proud of them all,” she said. “I’m humbled by their sacrifice, their service and love of country.”

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