About a year and a half ago I was researching a story about Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church (most famous for being the Christians hateful bigots that carry signs that read “God hates fags.”) Digging a little deeper into the story, I discovered that Phelps & Co. believe their God has a lot of hate to spread around, so they also protest military funerals with signs like “God loves dead Marines” and “God loves IEDs.” I could think of nothing more hurtful than a family seeing signs like those as they buried their son or daughter.
As I described what I’d learned to an acquaintance, she suggested I look into a group called the Patriot Guard Riders. She knows I ride a motorcycle, and thought this might be a group for me. To be honest, I was a little worried about what I might find when I clicked on that link. Recent history has seen the word “patriot” hijacked by those who would use it to exclude, even vilify fellow Americans. They call themselves patriots, and imply that if you do not agree with them then you could not possibly be patriotic yourself; in fact, you may even be un-American. Luckily, that is not at all what I found.
The Patriot Guard are a group of (primarily) motorcycle riders dedicated to honoring fallen heroes. Many are veterans, though that’s not required. In fact, you don’t even have to ride a motorcycle. They don’t care what your political views are. All that is required is respect.
In the event of protesters at a funeral, the Patriot Guard will park their motorcycles between those with signs and the ceremony, and raise their flags so as to screen off the protesters from the view of the mourners. I am happy to say this has not yet been necessary on any of the dozen or so missions that I have been on with the PGR.
A more typical PGR mission starts with an aircraft arrival and a flag line to salute the service person as they are returned home. A military honor guard transfers the flag-draped casket from the Lear jet to a waiting hearse. The riders then escort the hearse, family and honor guard to the cemetery. Another flag line at the grave site, and the fallen hero is given military honors as he or she is laid to rest.
My most recent PGR mission was on Tuesday, for a 20-year-old soldier who was killed last week in Afghanistan. The boy’s father thanked us for coming to honor his son, and said, “If you had known [my son]…well, this would’ve been his favorite part. He’d have been right here riding with you.” I cannot imagine the pain he felt in burying his son. 20 years old.
The term “hero” means different things to different people. In the fantasy realm, a hero might be the brave knight who slays the dragon and vanquishes enemies of the crown. Some think of athletes, musicians or other celebrities as their heroes. For me, a hero is one who knows there is danger, yet willingly puts themselves in harm’s way for the protection of others.
Regardless of your political views or your opinion on whether America’s wars are right or wrong, those who would go to fight so that you don’t have to deserve our respect. I long for the day that old men don’t start wars that young men and women then have to go fight. Until then, I will do my small part to honor and thank these heroes.
Ride captain Craig “Gunny” Donor, GySGT USMC (ret.,) summed it up for me, better than I ever could. He said, “There are a thousand things I’d rather do. None are more important.”