MARIETTA, Ga. — More than 1,000 motorcyclists packed Sprayberry High School's parking lot on Aug. 1 to "take care of their own."
Riders from Cobb and neighboring counties drove a mixture of motorcycles, decked out with American and Marine Corps flags, in a 110-mile charity ride to Chattanooga, led by Marine veteran Jason Weeks, to honor Lance Cpl. Skip Wells, a slain Marietta Marine who was fatally shot at a reservist center in Tennessee last month.
Wells, a 21-year-old Sprayberry High School graduate, was one of five military members killed in the July shooting.
Supporters lined the school's parking lot mid-morning on Aug. 1 to donate money and show support to Wells' family. The group was led by a mixture of local police and Chattanooga police escorts down Interstate 75 toward Tennessee.
Weeks, who is a neighbor of the Wells family and founding member of the Cherokee County Wingmen Club, said the ride was an opportunity to raise funds in Wells' honor and support his mother, Cathy Wells, who asked for donations to be made to Marines and Mickey, a Marine family support organization, in her son's name.
"We told her that we would rather collect cash and let her decide to do what she wanted with it," he said. "It hit home that she was worried about having to go back to work at the time. That was her concern and we wanted to take great steps to alleviate those concerns. One of the things was providing financial support for her that bereavement leave was available to her and she wouldn't be hurt financially by not returning until she was ready."
Weeks escorted Cathy Wells on his black Harley Davidson motorcycle, with a trail of motorcyclists following behind them as spectators waved flags and applauded as the group left the school parking lot in a single line down Piedmont Road.
For Weeks, Wells' death hit home in more ways than one. In addition to being a fellow Marine, Weeks' son, attended the same schools as Wells, Bells Ferry Elementary and Daniell Middle School, and will attend SprayberryHigh School next year. His son was always taken care of by Cathy Wells when he started having asthmatic troubles at school, Weeks added.
"I didn't know Skip personally," he said. "I didn't know Cathy personally until this happened but because the Marine family is so tight-knit, I reached out. I realized Skip was (a) neighbor and his mother was my son's bus driver for three years. She was also a lunchroom attendant who looked out for my son. Marines find each other very quickly, especially in times of need. We take care of our own."
Since the initial planning of the event, Weeks said the ride "had taken a life of its own" and exceeded fundraising expectations, which will allow the group to create scholarships in the slain Marine's honor, including ones for Sprayberry's Navy JROTC program and band program, both of which Skip Wells participated in as a student.
"When we started putting this together the day after Lance Cpl. Wells and the other Marines were shot, we anticipated (it) being about a 200 to 300 bike run and it became very apparent that it was going to grow. I've never seen this many motorcycles in the same parking lot. It's grown and has taken its own life."
Weeks also said the event was a statement to leaders in Washington, who he said have yet to recognize Cathy Wells and other affected families.
"I don't feel like we have leadership that is recognizing our nation's loss," he said. "The flag didn't go down for five days. Cathy hasn't been recognized as a gold star mother. Purple Hearts have not been authorized and I have a problem with that. This is a gold star mother right here and there are four other gold star mothers in the country."
Brandy McClain, a Sprayberry High School science teacher and Cherokee County resident, said the Aug. 1 event was evidence of closeness of the military and Sprayberry community.
"I knew a lot of (Skip's) friends and I still keep in touch with them," she said. "The school has just been very supportive. Today's event really shows that once you've been in the military it really doesn't matter if you've served your first term or you retired. Once you're a Marine, once you're a sailor, once you've been in the Air Force — it's for life. You're part of a family. The support doesn't stop."