It was a sunny May Saturday in Morgantown, 21 years ago, when a group of Gene Vance Jr.’s friends gathered at Whitetail Cycle & Fitness to talk about the buddy they knew — but didn’t.
Vance, a Special Forces operative who was fluent in Farsi and was recognized with the Bronze Star during the Gulf War, was a guy, who, in their two-wheeled community, simply liked to ride as much as they did.
The 38-year-old was soft-spoken, tall and rangy.
He always was there early at the bike shop in the Wharf District, where he worked, on top of taking classes at WVU.
Give him an endless cup of coffee and 1960s surf guitar music on the sound system and he was a happy man.
What his friends who went on bicycle jaunts with him over the hills of north-central West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania didn’t know was that he was also a man on a literal mission.
They may have noticed his occasional absences around town, but they weren’t aware he was off in a war zone somewhere.
Newly married in 2001, the one-time, active-duty soldier had put off his honeymoon to go back into battle — after the twin towers in lower Manhattan crumpled horribly and fiery wounds were gouged into the Pentagon and in a field once covered in wildflowers at the edge of a forest near Shanksville, Pa.
That week before in Afghanistan, he was taken down by an enemy bullet during heavy fighting.
Vance was critically wounded, but, according to battlefield accounts, he was still able to save several of his fellow soldiers, even as he was bleeding to death.
He was the first American causality in those early days of the war on terror in the desolate mountains of that country, and on this May Saturday — tomorrow — his adopted hometown is honoring his bravery and service.
Ceremonies for the annual Gene Vance Jr. Day, which is also U.S. Armed Forces Day, nationally, will be 11 a.m. on the Monongalia County Courthouse Plaza.
Proclamations will be read, along with letters from West Virginia lawmakers in Washington.
Morgantown lawmakers will also speak, and local country music star Cody Clayton Eagle will also perform a tribute in song.
Visit https://www.genevancejr.org/2023 for full details.
Back on that Saturday in 2002 when everyone was waiting for Vance’s body to be returned to American soil, a cycling friend marveled at a citizen and soldier who did heroic things in the service of his country — without saying one word about it.
Not a one.
Frank Gmeindl, who often rode with Vance and in fact was getting ready to pedal on a run in his honor, said then he only learned of the man’s military life through his obituary in The Dominion Post.
“All cyclists ever talk about are their bikes and their conditioning,” he said.
“The social issues of the day never came up much. For the longest time, I just knew him as ‘Gene’ — nothing else.”