Each year in May, Ellen Pierson etches the name of a fallen law enforcement officer into a bracelet she wears.
The 1,000 miles she bikes up the East Coast afterward, she said, is the easy part.
"You look down at your arm and you got that wristband on with the [fallen officer’s] name, and you know that family is going through so much more than you ever will," said Pierson, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations special agent. "Our pain is temporary, but the family’s pain never goes away."
Pierson and a fluctuating team of between 20-30 riders trekked from Green Cove Springs, Fla., to Virginia Beach, Va., then from Reading, Pa., to Washington, D.C., April 29 to May 12. Her ride culminated at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., coinciding with the kick-off of 2013 National Police Week May 12-18.
Her mission: raise public awareness of law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty.
The name on her wristband this year was Special Agent Gary Friedli, a U.S. Customs Service agent killed on duty in 1998. Friedli was a passenger in a vehicle that collided with a tractor-trailer while on the way to investigate possible drug smuggling outside Douglas, Ariz. He is survived by his wife, Dorene Kulpa-Friedli, and daughter.
"On March 4, 2013, it was 15 years ago that Gary was killed in the line of duty," Kulpa-Friedli wrote in an email, expressing what Pierson’s ride meant to her. "And there is a person by the name of Ellen Pierson, someone who never met Gary, who is riding hundreds of miles in his memory and in his honor. All of Gary’s family is humbled by the fact that Ellen is taking a long journey in his name and to support us as his surviving family."
Pierson met Friedli-Kulpa at the 2012 ICE Police Week Ceremony, and mentioned that she has been participating in annual long-distance treks to honor fallen officers as part of her charity organization, "Law Enforcement United." Ellen asked if anyone had ever ridden in Gary’s honor. When Kulpa-Friedli told her no, Pierson asked to ride in her late husband’s honor in 2013.
"At 15 years (since the time of Friedli’s death), it was going to be milestone, and it would be a great way to observe it," Kulpa-Friedli wrote. "Ellen was true to her word, a sign of integrity that reminded me of my husband Gary."
"It’s very important we honor the fallen and let their families know we still care about them," Pierson said. "Gary’s death was 15 years ago, and he still should be honored."
Pierson also weaved in moments to honor other law enforcement officers during her long bike ride.
She began her journey April 29 at the Clay County Sheriff's Office in Green Cove Springs to honor Detective David White, who was killed Feb. 16, 2012 during a drug house raid.
White's 5-year-old daughter led Pierson's team out of the parking area on her bicycle.
Pierson and her team paused in South Carolina to remember Rob Moorhead, a retired Customs Border Protection pilot who died April 19, 2011. Moorhead was on a training ride in Louisiana when a driver who was texting on a mobile phone struck Moorhead's vehicle, killing him.
Pierson's team also honored Maj. Spencer Guerry, Georgetown County, S.C., Police Department, who died in 1994 in the line of duty. The riders attended a ceremony for Guerry, and also spoke with his widow and son.
In North Carolina, Pierson's team honored Bladen County, N.C., Deputy Sheriff Dewayne Hester, who was killed in a vehicle collision while responding to an assault in-progress call. The team also met with the family of Master Police Officer Jeremiah Goodson, Lumberton Police Department, N.C., who was killed July 17.
The riders then attended a memorial service in Greenville, N.C., May 7 for Officer Jason Campbell, who died while on duty April 14, 2007. Later the riders paid tribute to Deputy Sheriff Richard Ashley Sr., Chowan County, N.C., Sheriff's Office. Ashley was killed July 17, 2002.
"We’re very fortunate that we have more cyclists each year on the team than we do fallen officers," Pierson said. "Hopefully there’s never a year where we have more fallen officers than cyclists."
Until there’s no more fallen officers left to honor, Pierson said, she’ll be back on her bike each May.
"We will always honor those officers killed on duty, because it’s the right thing to do," she said. "As long as I’m able, I’ll be there."