When asked why she participates year after year in a grueling bicycle trek known as the Police Unity Tour, or PUT, Special Agent (SA) Ellen Pierson, with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), says, "It's not about riding a bicycle for 250 miles. I believe with the right training anyone can do that. It's about knowing that another law enforcement officer won't be going home to their family ever again - that it could have been anyone of us."
What makes this year even more special for Pierson, who has participated for the past 10 years, is that she is now helping to train Cindy Roberts, the wife of Tampa Police Department Officer Cpl. Mike Roberts who was killed in 2009, to make the ride for the first time.
"I will help Cindy in any way I can to ride every mile," said Pierson. "If she has a mechanical issue, I will gladly give her my bike. We will make sure she makes it."
To participate in PUT, a rider must be a sworn or retired law enforcement officer or a "survivor," meaning someone who lost an immediate family member in law enforcement.
The Tampa Bay group includes Pierson and 37 other law enforcement officers from the Tampa Police Department - including Police Chief Jane Castor, the Florida State Attorney's Office, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando County Sheriff's Offices, and the St. Petersburg and Largo Police Departments. And now, Cindy.
Every year, PUT members are presented with a memorial bracelet engraved with a fallen hero's name, agency and end of watch date. All 152 officers who died in the line of duty in 2010 will be honored by a PUT member during this year's ride. Each PUT member also contacts the agency and/or the family to let them know they are honoring their loved one.
"I think when you receive the bracelet and place it on your wrist, it really sinks in why you are there," said SA Pierson. "Most of the officers that ride know at least one officer on the NLEOM (National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial). I have nine friends on the wall, including one I rode a bike with in 2009. Officer Rich Matthews was supposed to ride in the PUT in 2010. He died in a car accident in February that year."
Pierson has ridden in honor of both friends and officers she has never met from far away states. "I think it is important that the families know that officers from all over the United States are honoring their loved one. I also like to honor officers who passed prior to 2010. I think the families need to know that we will not forget their loved one."
This year, Pierson is riding in honor of retired U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air Interdiction Agent (AIO) Rob Moorhead. Moorhead, who was part of this event for the past five years, was training for this year's bike ride when he was struck and killed by a vehicle on April 19.
Next year, Pierson will wear a bracelet for ICE HSI SA Jaime Zapata who was killed in Mexico in February 2011.
"I did not know SA Zapata, but I will be proud to ride in his honor next year," she said.
SA Pierson departed Jacksonville on April 30 and traveled to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. On May 1, she joined 20 officers riding for the same cause and they will ride together to Virginia Beach, Va.
From that location, the group officially becomes part of the Police Unity Tour, which culminates at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC, on May 12.