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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2018
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International bikers will ride for friendship

For Martin Royen, the black Honda VTR 1300 motorcycle parked outside his apartment is equal parts conveyence, two-wheeled therapy session and a loud link between cultures.
Royen, 61, a chain-smoking, retired Belgian national police captain who investigated heinous murders and later became a Belgian TV star, moved to the Tampa area in April as a military spouse. His wife, Belgian Air Force Lt. Col Vinciane Sablon, was given a prestigious post at MacDill Air Force Base, as Belgium's senior national representative to U.S. Central Command's international coalition. Royen, who now runs an international security firm called Marvin Consulting, came along for the ride.
Sitting in the living room of the apartment his government provides for the military stationed at MacDill, Royen says the bike was his way to avoid going stir crazy. But it became more than that, leading to what he's calling a Friendship Tour, a ride this Saturday that will include members of the local chapter of the Blue Knights, an international law enforcement officer's motorcycle club, and representatives of some of the 55 nations who make up Centcom's international coalition. Anyone with a motorcycle, says Royen, is welcome to join.
"At the Blue Knights, we have a motto," says Royen, a member of the organization's Belgian chapter, explaining the rationale for the ride. "There are no strangers. There are only friends you haven't met yet."
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"The first time I met Martin was in 1998," says Sablon.
At the time, Sablon, now 51, was an Air Force lieutenant, in a career that saw her break barriers, becoming the flying branch's first female weapons officer and first woman officer in the first Gulf War. "In the beginning, the Belgian authorities did not want to send females there, because they did not know what would happen," says Sablon. "It was a constant fight to impose myself and prove that to be a woman is not a weakness."
For Sablon, the fight paid off. She has a prestigious job, and is one of only two women representing their nations to the Centcom coalition. Soon there will be one,
Being senior national representative to the Centcom coalition "is a great honor," she says. "It is very interesting to work in the coalition and meet so many different kinds of people. We have more members than even NATO."
The coalition is made up of countries supporting U.S. military efforts in the Centcom region, one of the world's most restive. It includes Afghanistan and 19 other nations, covering most of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, from Egypt to Iran. Representatives come for as short as six months, like Sablon, or a few years, depending on the nation.
As Belgium's top military liaison to Centcom, Sablon is responsible for representing her country's interests. Belgium has about 300 troops in Afghanistan.
"Belgium's biggest concern is about the future" of Afghanistan, says Sablon. "Generally speaking, we are awaiting what the U.S. decides for the future. When the United States decides what plan to do, I think we are prepared with plans for different options."
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Getting to know new people is the one of the Friendship Tour's missions, says Royal Swedish Navy Rear Admiral Mats Fogelmark, chairman of the Centcom coalition. "This is an opportunity for us to go out and meet some Americans," says Fogelmark, who gave Royen the go-ahead to organize the ride and use the coalition logo on his poster advertising the event.
For Fogelmark, an avid biker who tries to ride from his Belleaire Beach home to Centcom as often as possible, the concept was a natural.
Bobby Baker, local Blue Knights chapter president, agrees.
"Martin reached out to me over the internet before he came here," says Baker, who spent 21 years with the Clearwater Police Department and another 17 with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
They met at a chapter breakfast meeting and Royen came up with the idea for the ride.
Baker, 66, of Seminole, says he is looking forward to it.
"We are talking about making it a regular thing," says Baker, who rides a 2009 Harley Davidson Ultra Classic. "There is no reason why we shouldn't be having some association with the people on base. Half of us in the Blue Knights are veterans, too. And law enforcement is quasi-military anyway."
Royen says the ride is a chance to showcase the coalition and Blue Knights. "The goal is to prove that the Blue Knights are open to new friends," he says. "And the coalition is not a closed group. They are open to meeting people, too."
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