It’s one of those things that you just have to do. And you can’t explain the experience to anyone who wasn’t there – the words just don’t exist. There have been precious few times in my life when I’ve seen a group of people and thought to myself, “They are absolutely, one-hundred percent right. There is no gray area – these people are doing the right thing, and I want to be part of it.”
A little background on the Patriot Guard Riders…
There’s a Baptist Church in Topeka, KS that believes that when a U.S. soldier dies, it’s God’s way of telling us that homosexuality is bad. The logic is that the soldier died defending the United States, and the U.S. government is tolerant of homosexuality – therefore the soldier is defending homosexuality and is going to hell. The really bad thing about this is that they go to soldiers’ funerals and wave signs saying, “God Hates Fags,” and “God Hates America,” and they yell at the grieving family. I wish I didn’t have to mention these people at all, but they’re a fact.
In response to this group protesting at soldiers’ funerals, a group of bikers (quite a few of whom are either combat veterans or, like myself, served in the military in peacetime) started going to the funerals as well – not to out-shout the protestors, but simply to stand in a line between the protesters and the families – if invited to do so by the family. Thus was born the Patriot Guard.
I’ve only been able to support two Patriot Guard functions, but I’ve been moved deeply by both.
My first experience was in a suburb of Omaha a month or two ago. A buddy of mine, along with our wives, left from Sioux City on a windy, windy day and made our way the 90-some miles to our destination, a gas station parking lot. Once at the “staging area,” we hung around for a bit waiting for other bikers to arrive, then were called to a quick meeting. We gathered around and listened to the State Captain give the instructions. We were to ride in formation a few blocks to the chapel where the service was to be held, park our bikes, and line up along the sidewalk in order to block the families view of the protesters (who were about a quarter-mile away anyway, thanks to a state law).
We obediently saddled up and headed to the chapel. I noticed that a few bikes had nifty flags attached to the back. We proceeded to line the sidewalk and stood there at attention, those with flags at the end towards the chapel, while the family came in. It was VERY emotional. Once everyone was in the chapel, we made a beeline for the shade and awaited further instructions.
“When the family comes back out,” the State Captain said, “we’ll need to be lining the sidewalk, saluting. I’ll need five volunteers to ride with the hearse to the funeral home after the service.” As you can see by the photo to the left, the five volunteers turned into nearly two-hundred. That’s just the way this group is. (By the way, you can click on any of the photos to see a larger version. I think.)
When the services were over, I overheard the soldier’s father saying that he was going to buy a motorcycle so he could join the Patriot Guard and honor other fallen soldiers. (By the way, I’m not saying either of the soldier’s names, simply so the families can have a little privacy. I feel a little bad writing all this in the first place, like I may be invading on private ground.)
I found out later that not only does the Patriot Guard attend the services themselves, but they will also meet and escort the fallen soldier from the airport, no matter what time he lands, to his destination.
My latest experience was just this past week in Pender, NE (population 1,148). The National Guard unit based in Wayne, NE was activated some time ago. (Soldiers in that unit come from all sorts of little towns in the area.) When word filtered down that a soldier from Pender had been killed I started making plans to attend. When I realized that many of the Patriot Guard Riders were at the Sturgis rally that week I decided I’d go for sure.
The night before the service Dagmar and I went to the store and bought a flag and some miscellaneous brackets – I figured if I bought enough hardware I could figure out a way to mount the flag on my bike somehow. (By ten or eleven o’clock that night I succeeded. I ended up using one bracket and six zip-ties – not the best arrangement, but it worked.)
At four in the morning the day of the service I was awake and somewhat alert. I had seen on the Patriot Guard web site that a group of riders from LeMars, a town north of Sioux City (and my hometown), was planning to stop for a fifteen minute break just off one of the Interchanges here in town; I figured I could meet up with them there and follow them to Pender. Unfortunately, when I went outside at five-thirty in the morning to get the bike cleaned up and ready to go, I couldn’t help but notice the pouring rain, lightning and thunder. Hmmm… I puttered around in the garage for about an hour, cleaning various bits of chrome, watching the rain. Finally I went back inside to get my rainsuit. I kissed Dagmar on the nose, grabbed my stuff, and headed back outside. Joy of joys, in the three minutes I was inside the rain stopped! I stowed my gear in a saddle bag and headed off to meet the LeMars group.
Fifteen minutes later I pulled into a parking lot just off the indicated Interchange. I could see a group of four bikes parked in the corner with a few people milling aimlessly about. I pulled up and shouted “Patriot Guard?” They nodded, so I parked. Introductions were made, hands were shook. I was starting to get a bit worried – the last Patriot Guard function had something like 200 bikes present, and here there are only five of us so far. But at about that time the LeMars contingent pulled in, doubling our size. Again, hands were shook, introductions were made…
And off we went. It’s only about forty miles from Sioux City to Pender, so we were pulling in at the staging area (a gas station in Pender) within an hour. Our group of about ten bikes (plus the one we picked up on the way) joined the three bikes that were already there. Hmmm… Not a big turnout so far.
By the time we had our helmets off, a lady from the gas station had approached our group. I was ready for her to ask us what we were doing, or tell us to leave, but instead she said, “I heard what you boys are doing today. We made some nice sandwiches and coffee for you – it’s right inside the door.” We all smiled and thanked the nice lady. Just then we hard a rumble in the distance behind us. We all turned to see a LONG line of motorcycles approaching from the distance – the Omaha contingent. “Oh my,” said the lady, “I’d better make more sandwiches.”
As soon as all the bikes were in the parking lot, the State Captain called everyone to the “mission briefing,” where details of the day were explained. I have to admit, I felt a bit proud when he said he wanted “bikes with large flags” to lead the way to the church. (I noticed that all the LeMars guys had large flags on their bikes – only a handful of other bikes had large flags. I’m willing to bet the LeMars guys have done this before.)
So, we headed off for the church, just across town. Once we were all in the parking lot (which took a few minutes), a few volunteers handed everyone a flag (provided by the Patriot Guard) and we made our way to the sidewalk to create an avenue of flags for the family. The National Guard unit had a parade float near the church. On the side of the float were photos of each member of the unit. There were a lot of photos.
Once we were “settled in” at the sidewalk, I took a moment to glance around. At the church door was a military honor guard. After them were the American Legion with their flags. Following that group was our own Patriot Guard with our flags. Combined, we stretched from the church door, around the corner, and nearly a block down the street to the east. The protesters were there with their children just a block north of the church. You really couldn’t see them, though, for all the American flags waving in the breeze between them and the church. There were several television crews wandering around. A man quietly rang a big brass bell every ten seconds. He did this for over an hour, his head down, silent tears falling from his cheeks.
When the family arrived to make their way into the church we were called to attention. The family made their way down the flag-filled sidewalk past us and into the church. As soon as the service started, we headed back to the parking lot where we stowed our flags and waited to find out what we were to do next. I noticed there were so many people at the service they couldn’t all fit into the church – quite a few people were standing outside in front of the church, listening to the service as it was piped through loudspeakers.
There was another short meeting where word was passed down that we were to reassemble in front of the church to honor the soldier as he was brought to the hearse, then an honor guard of seven “large flag” bikes would lead the hearse to the cemetery in an eight-bike “missing man” formation with the rest of us following – remaining large flags to the rear please. So, we hung around, quietly talking in the church parking lot while the service was going on, sipping on bottles of water (again, donated by the Patriot Guard). When it seemed the service was coming to a conclusion we gathered in the front of the church where we waited in formation to honor the soldier as he was placed in the hearse. Again, the emotional impact was startling, so very many people there with one goal in mind – to respect a young man who lost his life.
Once that portion of the service was over we headed back to the bikes and proceeded to the cemetery. As we made our way through town, a few bikes in front, hearse, five or six cars of family members, followed by hundreds of motorcycles with uncounted cars at the end, we started seeing small groups of people standing here and there on street corners, hands on their hearts or saluting, waving small flags. We turned a corner. Someone who knew what the funeral route would be had placed a boom fire truck on each side of the street with booms extended, a huge American flag strung between them billowing gently over the street. That’s when I found out just how hard it is to ride with tears in my eyes. The farther we went, the more people there were on the side of the road. As we left town I could see that for two miles to the cemetery at the top of the hill there were people lining the roadway nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, waving small flags and saluting. You know, it’s really hard to ride a motorcycle on gravel while crying. When we got to the cemetery we passed a truck. In the back of the truck was a big brass bell, being rung every ten seconds by a man with his head down, quietly crying.
We parked our bikes, grabbed our flags, and arranged ourselves in formation a respectful distance from the gravesite. It took a long time for all the family, friends and townspeople to arrive – there were a LOT of people. We were far enough away that I couldn’t hear the service, but I could tell what was happening simply by watching the mourners. Shots rang out, followed by a lone bugler playing “Taps,” the bell rang on.
It took a few minutes after the service for everyone to compose themselves and get the flags put away, and quite a bit longer for the impact of the whole thing to sink in.
We must remember that no matter what our opinions of the war or our leaders may be, there are soldiers dying – and they deserve our respect. I’m honored I was able to do so twice. The Patriot Guard is more than mere flag-waving – it truly is about honest and sincere respect. For more information on the Guard, simply click here. (They do accept donations if you’re interested in helping out a bit.)