Photographers Kirk Duit and Laurie Pease Johnson of Kirk Portrait Designs in Woodbury offer their time and talent as official photographers for Tribute to the Troops, a nonprofit organization that began 10 years ago with a small group of patriotic Minnesotans who wanted to show support to families of fallen soldiers. Tribute to the Troops organizes memorial motorcycle rides to honor fallen heroes.
Johnson learned about Tribute to the Troops in 2005 during a concert with country music artist and organization co-founder Rockie Lynne. Intrigued, she began showing up at Fort Snelling for scheduled rides. “I always brought my camera,” Johnson says. “I photographed the rides and riders who gathered to pray with military families.”
Even big Harley guys break down in tears when letters from deceased soldiers are read aloud during the presentations. “There is a healing power from people coming together to show they care and tell these families their loved ones are not forgotten,” Johnson says.
Duit and Johnson work together photographing rides, each attempting to create commemorative works of art for the organization and the families. “The rides are pre-arranged with the families,” says Duit as he describes processions of more than a hundred bikers arriving to greet families of the fallen.
Over the years, Tribute to the Troops has visited several families in Woodbury including Ken and Julie Drevnick after their son, Army National Guard specialist Daniel Drevnick, was killed in Iraq in 2009. Ken says, “The motorcycles came rumbling up the street; riders included veterans, non-veterans and other gold star families. We were given a plaque and lots of hugs. The outpouring of support was overwhelming.”
The Drevnicks have since gotten to know Johnson and Duit. “Kirk Portrait Designs provided us with photographs from our event and has also generously donated to our organization, Hero at Home, a memorial scholarship fund for veterans. It means a lot for gold star families to know their heroes are not forgotten.”
Tribute to the Troops memorials are not limited to soldiers who’ve died in combat. Elizabeth McConnell’s son, Marine Sergeant Ian McConnell, served six years and two deployments. He survived a horrific explosion in Afghanistan and suffered a traumatic brain injury, only to suffer effects of PTSD and take his own life several months after returning home in 2011.
Elizabeth recalls the approaching rumble of Tribute to the Troops motorcycles, like a jet engine, followed by a touching presentation by Rockie Lynne and hugs from every single rider. “The message of love and assurance that we are not alone and my son is not forgotten means a lot to me,” Elizabeth says. “I know in my heart that my son’s death resulted from his traumatic brain injury. In his presentation, Rockie said my son was killed by sniper fire 7000 miles away.”