Veterans joining motorcycle ride to raise money for scholarship honoring slain Santa Rosa soldier

Local vets are riding and rallying Saturday in Healdsburg to remember Sgt. Ryan Connolly|

It’s been a decade since 24-year-old Sgt. Ryan Connolly was killed while serving his country, but a group of local veterans are rallying Saturday to make sure the Santa Rosa man’s memory lives on by raising money to start a scholarship at Santa Rosa Junior College in his honor.

Up to 70 motorcyclists are expected to take to the streets for the ninth annual Fallen Warrior Memorial Ride and fundraiser in honor of Connolly, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2005. The Piner High School graduate was killed by a roadside bomb on June 24, 2008 in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border.

He was working with the 173rd Airborne Brigade as a combat medic in Operation Enduring Freedom. He was only two weeks away from leaving the war zone and had been promoted to sergeant shortly before he was killed.

“He was killed when he was 24. He never had a chance at a full life,” his father, Jim Connolly, said Wednesday. “I hope people will remember people like him, who volunteered to face danger in order to help protect their country when others couldn’t.”

Healdsburg’s American Legion Riders Chapter 111 is organizing the event. It kicks off with a 78-mile ride from Windsor to Lake Hennessey and back to Villa Chanticleer picnic grounds in Healdsburg. A tri-tip barbecue will be held at the picnic grounds at 11:30 a.m., followed by a ceremony to replace three American flags that had been draped on veterans caskets but destroyed in October’s wildfire and a silent auction.

Organizers hope the event will raise at least $10,000, enough to launch and sustain the Ryan Connolly Scholarship at the junior college in perpetuity to support veterans and their families studying technical and trade education programs.

“We were so honored the American Legion wanted to work with us and support the next generation of students and honor Ryan’s memory,” said Sarah Laggos, director of alumni, annual fund and corporate relations.

If the initial funding goal is met, the Connolly scholarship would be available next fall, Laggos said. Money raised from Saturday’s event in Healdsburg will be invested and annual investment returns will support the scholarship. As many as 500 military veterans are now enrolled at SRJC.

As a young boy, the late Connolly and his father would fix lawnmowers and other household items. By age 10, the younger Connolly began tinkering with mini-bikes and motorcycles. It was important to the elder Connolly, a car enthusiast, that his kids knew the basics of how to change oil and replace a tire. He hopes the new scholarship in his son’s name will help students with their vocational careers.

“I’m thinking it might be someone who was 20 and out of high school for a year or two and wanted to get into something, maybe this scholarship will help them in the right direction,” Connolly said, reminiscing about his late son.

The warrior motorcycle ride and the other activities Saturday in Healdsburg are also a time to remember, said American Legion Post 111 Commander Tim Madura, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force.

“The ride is so important because we’re honoring someone who has given the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” Madura said.

It’s also a chance to replace the flags once draped on the caskets of three World War II veterans. The flags were lost when Chris and Jackie Pratt’s Mark West Estates home burned in the wildfire last October. Their son, Mike Pratt, reached out to the Sonoma County Veterans Service Office, who helped connect him with the local chapter.

For Mike Pratt, receiving the new flags that commemorated his grandfathers’ and his great uncle’s military service is a chance to preserve his family’s history. The flags will be presented at the Saturday ceremony featuring a flag folding and gun salute.

“It was a family legacy,” he said. “We lost 99 percent of the photos of them and any history other than memories. This would be one thing I could pass on (to my kids.)”

Bill Nay, vice president of the American Legion Riders Chapter 111, said he hopes the event instills in attendees a sense of gratitude for veterans.

“First and foremost, it’s honoring that sacrifice and service,” said Nay, who served for decades in the Marine Corps and U.S. Army Reserves. “The public certainly didn’t thank us in the 1960s. Nowadays, they thank you and turn their back when it comes to the plight. We need to get out how many veterans are homeless, and how many are jobless and how many are committing suicide.”

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You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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