- Politics and Social Issues
Patriot Guard and Patriot Guard Riders Honor Fallen Heroes
by Kathy Batesel
Patriot Guard & Patriot Guard Riders Gather Before Funeral
Volunteer Patriot Guards Protect Americans
I went on my first Patriot Guard ride this week. I expect to attend many more! Since 2005, the Patriot Guard and Patriot Guard Riders have protected and honored fallen heroes, including veterans, fire fighters, and police officers.
Although I'm a veteran and patriot, I assumed I couldn't become part of the Patriot Guard because I don't own or drive a motorcycle. I was wrong. I was glad to learn that not only am I welcome to take part, there are many volunteer opportunities that do not involve rides, too.
Keep reading to learn about the organizations that pay tribute to the United States' fallen heroes.
The Patriot Guard and Patriot Guard Riders adhere to a non-violence policy, but adopted a "fight fire with fire" approach to activities that some people believe should be considered hate crimes by the Westboro Baptist Church.
It seems to have worked. The WBC is less visible today, even though they continue to conduct protests aimed at provoking people.
Patriot Guard Riders continue to escort funeral processions for fallen veterans only at the family's request.
Fighting Noise with Noise: WBC vs. PGR
Westboro Baptist Church Leads to Patriot Guard
When the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, announced plans to disrupt a fallen soldier's funeral in July, 2005, Carol Hauck sprang into action. She and her husband, motorcycle enthusiast Terry Hauck, approached members of the American Legion group they belonged to. Although the Haucks lived in Mulvane, Kansas, and the funeral was in Oklahoma, they developed a plan to deal with the Westboro Baptist Church's hateful antics so Sgt. John Doles could be laid to rest peaceably.
The WBC had gained notoriety by carrying banners and instigating disruptions at sensitive funerals. "God hates the USA." "Thank God for dead soldiers." "Thank God for IEDs." (An I.E.D. is an improvised explosive device, a weapon that has claimed many soldier's lives while serving overseas.)
The group, founded by one-time civil rights attorney Fred Phelps, has attacked nearly every group of people who don't fit the WBC's narrow definition of a good Christian. They have picketed funerals of homosexuals and even targeted schoolchildren, like those who died at Sandy Hook - though their plan was later foiled. Some claim the WBC attempts to provoke others into hitting them so they can later sue them for financial damages.
The Houck's plan was embraced and promoted by their American Legion lodge. Motorcycle riders dressed in their full riding gear would stand guard to provide a barrier between the grieving families and the picketers.
To make the barriers more effective, they used their motorcycle engines to drown out the picketer's hostile chants and wave flags to obscure the sight of them. It seems to be working well. WBC demonstrations at soldiers' funerals are no longer making newscasts, and the WBC has lost much of its ability to horrify onlookers.
Patriot Guard vs. Patriot Guard Riders
The Patriot Guard's mission statement is strictly to guard the funerals of fallen soldiers. By October, the Patriot Guard had recruited more members, established its name, and announced it to more than a hundred volunteers who showed up to ensure Spc. Lucas Frantz could be laid to rest without interference in Tonganoxie, Kansas, just minutes from my own home.
The Patriot Guard initially developed through the American Legion and served at funerals in Kansas and Oklahoma. Soon, one of its members, Jeff "Twister" Brown, contacted the original American Legion founders and proposed recruiting members nationwide. With their encouragement, the Patriot Guard Riders was born.
Even though both groups have similar mission statements and similar names, they are two distinct groups.
Comparison of PG and PGR
Patriot Guard Riders
Membership open to non-veterans?
Membership open to non-motorcyclists?
Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebrasa
Throughout U.S. and Canada
Serve at fallen soldier funerals?
Provide other services to veterans?
Social media participation?
Riding with the Patriot Guard Riders
Mark Nudson had worked with my husband before his retirement. I can't remember exactly how the topic came up, but within minutes of being introduced, Mark, his wife, and I were talking about how I might contribute to the Patriot Guard Riders activities.
As a veteran myself, activities that support our military members are very meaningful to me, so I was excited to learn that I didn't have to be a motorcyclist to join. Mark told me that although he enjoyed riding and appreciated our veterans, he himself had not served in the military.
"But the Patriot Guard Riders do more than just funeral escorts," he told me. "They're involved in a lot of activities to support vets." He described some examples:
- Conducting armed salutes at funerals
- Sponsoring scholarships for dependents of troops who died in the line of duty
- Providing laptops for military members
- Welcoming soldiers home
He offered to send me information about their next event. Last week, I received an e-mail from him asking if I'd like to ride with him on an escort mission for a gentleman who served in World War II. (Mrs. Nudson doesn't like to ride.)
I quickly agreed. "Dress warmly," he said. "The weather's going to be chilly." It was barely April. Weather forecasters predicted fifty degree weather during the morning, with an afternoon high in the mid-60s.
He picked me up and we arrived outside the church where the funeral was to take place. Mark said that services could vary by quite a bit in length. This one was a Catholic service, and might take longer than some of the services he'd attended before.
He parked his Harley Davidson alongside the others that had already arrived. We climbed off and approached a knot of motorcyle riders gathered together. A young woman in tears was speaking.
"I'm his granddaughter. I knew you would be here, but I had no idea how much seeing you would affect me! Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this!"
(I'm not including the gentleman's name or his family information because I did not get permission from the family, which is one of the Patriot Guard Riders' requirements for using their names or images in any kind of press coverage.)
As the young woman excused herself and went toward the church, another woman in riding gear announced, "I'm PeeWee. My husband Kayak and I will be your ride captains today." It seemed everyone but me went by nicknames.
As she explained where everyone would stand next to the flags placed at regular intervals at the church's boundaries, I noticed that she and I were the only two females present.
"After the service starts," she said, "We'll have a meeting." Each of us took up our position next to an American flag, where we stood soberly as the decedent's family and friends entered the church. When the church doors closed, we left our posts and the flags were gathered for the next time they'd be needed.
We chatted with one another until she called everyone over for the pre-escort meeting, where she reviewed some important guidelines:
- Riders were to stay in formation.
- Motorcycles with flags would be in front of the hearse and behind it. Two more would take up position in front of the family car.
- All other riders would between the flagged riders that separated the hearse from the family car in the funeral procession.
Finally, she instructed all of the riders on how to deal with intrusive drivers who tried to cut through the procession. "They should be polite, but you never know. They might have an exit coming up. Let them through, then slowly catch back up. Stay in formation."
Honoring the Veteran
During the safety briefing, I tried to read as many of the riders' patches as I could. I noticed many of the PGR wore military affiliations with pride, like Big John, a former Marine who now rides with the Patriot Guard and serves as a ride captain on occasion.
Big John and Mark explained the differences between the Patriot Guard and the Patriot Guard Riders as we waited through the ceremony going on inside the church. Although Big John and many others are Patriot Guards, they rode alongside the Patriot Guard Riders even though the veteran being honored did not perish in action.
Instead, he had died one day after his 90th birthday, having lived a long and fruitful life. He left behind a family that had several members serving on active duty. His son attended the funeral in his military uniform.
The PG and PGR often work together, even outside of their organizations' mission statements, purely because their members believe strongly in the importance of being patriotic and celebrating the American heritage.
Several Army vets were present. As it was my first ride, I wasn't wearing a vest or any indication that I had served in the armed forces, and I was told that I should start shopping for a black vest and gathering the patches I'd want to wear.
Neither group allows members to wear their "colors," which are patches highlighting membership in a particular motorcycle club. However, they can wear special interest and commemorative patches. Although Big John's vest revealed his patriotic spirit, Mark sported patches of places where he'd ridden throughout the U.S.
As the memorial service ended, we lined up near the church doors to salute the veteran as his casket was carried to the hearse that would drive him to his final resting place.
Those who have served in the military salute, while those who haven't place their right hand over their heart.
We held our salute while the man who once served with General Patton in the Army, and who re-enlisted in the U.S. Navy, was carried past. Afterward, we went to the waiting motorcycles.
Riders Proudly Show Their Military Affiliation
Patriot Guard Riders Escort
An undeniable sense of power engulfed me as the bikers started their engines. Even at an idle, the distinctive growl of a dozen or more Harley Davidsons sounds almost threatening!
Four motorcycles with flags pulled into the street. The hearse came from behind the church and took its position behind them, and two more flagged riders got into place. As they moved forward, one rider after another fell into place.
This particular journey took about 30 minutes. About half of it was on the interstate. Just as PeeWee predicted, a woman driving a van needed to reach the exit. Riders slowed down to let her in. If they didn't, it could result in an accident. Motorcycle escorts are known for being even more dangerous than riding in normal traffic conditions - something that already claims the lives or limbs of many motorcyclists each year.
After we left the interstate, we continued formation after the woman changed lanes and sped ahead. Cars tapped their horns to salute the veteran. A man walking along the road raised his fist and stood still as the procession passed him by. His simple act brought tears to my eyes.
A minister came out of the small building and greeted each rider individually, shaking hands and thanking everyone for volunteering.
After a few minutes, we proceeded to an area where the family gathered to say their last goodbyes. Patriot Guard Riders took their positions beside flags that lined the area, standing respectfully throughout the simple final ceremony and saluting when it was called for.
The minister, a veteran himself, recited briefly from the Bible and managed to use humor to remind the family that their loved one would stay with them in spirit. He asked if anyone wanted to speak. Several friends and family members elected to say a few words. Every one of them expressed thanks for our volunteered services. Afterward, many of them stopped to shake our hands individually and tell us how much they appreciated our presence.
Again I found myself shedding tears. I was glad to see I wasn't alone. The men who stood beside me struggled to contain them, too.
As we disbanded, Mark introduced me to Pee Wee, who says she'll get me riding soon. I believe her. I've already agreed to attend weekly services to bid goodbye to veterans who have died without any family or friends to mourn them.
Taking part in the Patriot Guard Riders escort was a tremendous honor. The family that requested our presence invited us to share a very intimate family moment - one that is both poignant and tragic.
It reminded me that our fallen heroes suffer, do good things, leave their mark upon the world, and then at last, remain mortal.
If you're interested in learning more or wish to request an escort, please visit the American Legion Patriot Guard website.