Cops Cycling for Survivors travels through Jackson County

By the end of the 21st annual Cops Cycling for Survivors tour Saturday, the cyclists had touched all four corners of Indiana and racked up nearly 1,000 miles in 13 days.

Current law enforcement officers, retired officers, friends of law enforcement and other supporters along the way were part of the bicycle ride.

It started July 11, going from Richmond to Indianapolis. Other stops along the way were Bluffton, Angola, South Bend, Merrillville, Kentland, Terre Haute, Princeton, Jasper, Jeffersonville, Madison and Bloomington before wrapping up where it started.

In total, there were 37 people participating. Ten did the whole trip, while some rode two or three days, said Monica Zahasky, president of the Cops Cycling for Survivors Foundation Inc. board.

On Friday, 17 cyclists traveled through Jackson County while traveling from Madison to Bloomington.

They stopped at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department in Brownstown for lunch and a ceremony to honor late reserve officer James Richard “Rick” Hirtzel, who was among eight Indiana law enforcement officers who lost their lives in 2021 to have their pictures featured on the support truck for the tour around the state.

Hirtzel was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after turning 55, and he died Oct. 12, 2021. The Seymour native and U.S. Air Force veteran had still been serving as a reserve officer and was working at Nippon Steel Pipe America Inc., formerly Seymour Tubing, both for more than 32 years.

“It is our honor to cycle in honor and remember your husband that paid the ultimate sacrifice for our community and our state,” Zahasky said to Hirtzel’s wife, Julie Hirtzel, during the ceremony inside the sheriff’s department.

The Hirtzels’ daughter, Chelsea, attended along with Rick’s siblings, Joe Hirtzel, Leeann Kelley, Karl Hirtzel and Katrina Hirtzel, and their spouses.

“This is our first year. I’m learning all kinds of new things,” Julie said. “I’m humbled and just a lot of gratitude for you guys. You guys are amazing. Thank you.”

Kelley also expressed her appreciation to the cyclists.

“I am blessed to be involved in this today. It’s a blessing, and I thank you all for everything that you have done,” she said. “This department was his world. He was here for 32 years, and they have loved and taken care of him just like they are family. We consider you all family now. Thank you.”

Joe is Rick’s older brother, and Karl is the youngest brother.

“He loved the sheriff’s department. I appreciate everything you’re doing here. The whole department, just the police in general, you guys are all putting yourselves on the line, especially in these crazy times right now, so I appreciate all of you,” Joe said.

“I appreciate all you guys have done. It’s amazing what you’re doing,” Karl said. “The department here, Rick (Meyer, sheriff) and the rest of these guys here, they are like Rick’s brothers. It’s what they called each other, all brothers, so thank you for everything.”

Cops Cycling for Survivors Foundation Inc. was granted 501(c)(3) status as a not-for-profit in late 2011, and the inaugural 13-day tour around Indiana took place in July 2012. However, the spirit of this ride began many years before.

In 2002, a group of police officers decided to support survivors by riding their bicycles from Indianapolis to Washington, D.C., to honor officers killed in the line of duty and to support their survivors.

The ride has gone through many changes over the years, but one thing has remained constant: The cyclists’ dedication to honoring fallen law enforcement heroes and supporting their survivors left behind.

Two people who were integral to the success of the ride were the late Lt. Gary Dudley of the Indiana State Police and Retired Chief Gary Martin of the Lake County Police Department.

Dudley took the organizational and emotional lead and kept the wheels rolling after the first two years of riding to D.C. Wanting to do more to support survivors on a local level, he brought the ride home to Indiana.

On Aug. 22, 2006, Dudley and Martin were killed during the ride when a large box truck struck the rear of the support truck, pushing it into the cyclists. Several of the cyclists who had participated in the ride for many years and were cycling the day of the crash were determined to keep Dudley and Martin’s memories and motivation alive. Those memories and motivation have developed into what the ride is today.

Funds raised are utilized to support scholarships, camps and events held in memory of officers killed in the line of duty and other survivor causes as determined by the organization’s board.

Zahasky has participated in the ride from the start.

“We continue the mission of the Garys,” she said during Friday’s ceremony in Brownstown. “We want them to know that we’ll never forget the ultimate sacrifice that the community lost a major person in their hearts. We ride to never forget. It’s to continue the memory of those officers.”

The more than 450 Indiana officers killed in the line of duty are honored by the reading of officer down memorials at each stop on the tour.

On Friday, some North Vernon Police Department officers who were killed in the line of duty over the years were recognized along with Hirtzel. Their survivors in attendance were given a chance to speak.

All 17 of the cyclists, who live in various areas of the state, also introduced themselves with their name and reason for joining the ride, and they received a round of applause.

“They all get the mission that the Garys set forth with riding to remember, to never forget,” Zahasky said. “We want to continue to keep letting the survivors know that we won’t forget you, we won’t forget them and continue to honor the tradition of the Garys.”

Positive messages written on the support truck is one example of how people showed their support for Cops Cycling for Survivors during the 13-day tour.

“Our thin blue line is not thin. It is very, very thick, and when you think of that thin blue line, it is that family line. It is a thick family line that we have not only in Indiana but nationally,” Zahasky said. “We’ve had nothing but support throughout the state.”