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Retired farmer visits Valley on tractor trek to benefit wounded veterans

| Monday, May 12, 2014, 3:02 p.m.

A retired Pennsylvania farmer's cross-country trek to benefit wounded veterans brought him through the Alle-Kiski Valley on Sunday.

Ivan Stoltzfus, 67, of West Caln in Chester County is riding a restored 1948 John Deere tractor from coast to coast to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. He hopes to raise $1 million for the veterans service organization by the time he arrives in Crescent City, Calif., in late July or early August.

Two weeks into his journey, Stoltzfus has raised $46,000 and his effort, “Across America for Wounded Heroes,” is gaining momentum each day, he said.

“I've been contacted this week by (national news organizations) who want to do something, so the message is out there,” he said. “More people are turning up along the route to support the mission, and that support means the world to me.”

About 15 people associated with Team Red, White and Blue, a national nonprofit veterans service organization, gathered at the foot of the Freeport Bridge in Buffalo Township to salute Stoltzfus' efforts. The group waved American flags in the morning breeze and cheered for Stoltzfus as he passed through the Valley en route to Ohio.

“We were all very moved to see what this man is doing,” said Kate Bielak, captain of the organization's Western Pennsylvania chapter. “Our goal is to help veterans any way we can, so we wanted to show our appreciation for his efforts. Hopefully, this type of thing reinvigorates him along the way.”

Stoltzfus began the day heading up Route 66 North from Delmont.

The former farmer's voice cracked with emotion when he recounted how a young veteran there gave him the Purple Heart he received because he was shot in the arm by a sniper in Iraq. The man told Stoltzfus that he wanted him to keep the medal as a tribute for supporting the organization that has helped him through his recovery.

“I didn't want to take it, but he insisted,” said Stoltzfus, who himself is not a veteran. “That's the type of selflessness I see in a lot of veterans that made me want to do this.

“These guys pay the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and the older I get, the more I realize I've taken that for granted. I feel like America is one big family, and family is supposed to help each other out.”

Stoltzfus is likely to encounter more veterans with similar stories along his route, which will take him through 13 states above the Mason-Dixon line.

After passing over the Freeport Bridge, he turned onto Route 228 West, which he planned to take through Butler and Beaver counties. He planned to set up camp in the 22-foot trailer he's been towing for the trip just on the opposite side of the Ohio border, he said.

From Ohio, he'll continue west, taking a series of back roads from northern Illinois to Oregon and into northern California. The route is inspired, he said, by his father's stories of working across the country.

“I've wanted to see the country roads across America for a long time,” he said, “but this isn't a vacation. I'm doing this to accomplish something, I can take a vacation next year if I want to.”

The back roads not only afford Stoltzfus an opportunity to see the countryside, but make for easier travel, considering his tractor tops out at 17 mph. The Model A, which gets about nine miles on the gallon, has been fitted with a cab from a 1984 Peterbilt Model 359, and provides a “smoother ride than you might think.”

“It's a '48, but I'm a '47 and I'm in pretty good shape,” he said. “The only time it gets rough is on some of these steep hills in Western Pennsylvania. You just have to put it in a low gear and take it slow.”

A part-time real estate broker and auctioneer, Stoltzfus plans to attend several rallies and benefit auctions throughout the mid-West to supplement his fundraising.

For Susanne Kokoska, a Team Red, White & Blue social director, that kind of commitment to the cause motivates her to continue serving veterans.

“This is honestly one of the coolest things I've ever seen,” said Kokoska, who served in the Navy from 2001 to 2006. “It takes a special kind of person to do something like this. It's really inspiring.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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