LAWRENCEVILLE - Seven years ago, Stephen Johnson watched a tragedy unfold in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania from his ninth-grade classroom.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks angered him, leading him to join the Marine Corps as soon as he graduated from high school.
Johnson died in October 2006 in Iraq, but his mother spent Thursday at a memorial honoring the people who inspired her son to go to war.
"The Lord called him on 9/11," she said of the day that changed her family's lives even though they were far away from where terrorists hijacked planes and killed nearly 3,000 people. "It's not just about Stephen. ... My prayer is for this nation today, that they will never forget."
Rob Brooks, a pastor from Hebron Baptist Church who came to help the Johnson family when the Marines arrived to tell them of their son's fate, rode along with a band of retired firefighters in the "Ride to Remember" Thursday.
In a ceremony at the Gwinnett Fallen Heroes Memorial before the ride began, he read a letter Lance Cpl. Johnson wrote to his family before his death.
"He said, 'Never forget us and the sacrifice we have made to sustain our great amount of liberty,'" Brooks said. "The sacrifices that have been made by so many that day and in the war on terror since, that is the epitome of love."
For organizer Brent Hoovestol, the annual Red Knights motorcycle ride is a great way to honor the Sept. 11 victims and heroes on Patriot Day. He said the band of motorcyclists, some carrying flags, some wearing firefighter helmets and veteran's patches, serve as a gentle reminder to motorists as they ride along the interstate.
"America is strong if we don't forget," he said. "We can't be caught by surprise if we don't forget."
Lynn Johnson agreed.
"We've just got to stay vigilant and stay focused," said the Dacula woman who wore a "got freedom" T-shirt Thursday. "It's what Stephen would have us do."