Heroes

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.

Photo by "Doc" Peterson, used with kind permission.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.”

64 thoughts on “Heroes

  1. I have nothing but respect for the mission of this group. I cannot even fathom what motivates those protesters to add insult to deepest injury of the family and loved ones gathered at a fallen soldier’s burial. But a living shield, made of people who do respect the price that was paid, placed between the grief and those who would add to it, seems like a mission most worthy to me.

  2. Thank you. Sometimes I nearly loose hope. And then I read something like this. It’s nice to know that there are real patriots left. They need our support. Three cheers for the Patriot Guard.

  3. Thanks for mentioning the membership requirements. The PGR has a lot of “ordinary citizen” members (like myself) who don’t ride, but do show up to help act as screeners along the funeral routes, and to show our respect for the fallen.

    You don’t have to be a member to show your respect. My first “mission” I was one of several THOUSAND people who showed up in a smallish town to screen the protesters and line the route. I’m pretty sure at least half the town population was there to do their part. No one loves the WBC.

    The PGR was started by members of the American Legion Riders chapter 136 in Mulvane, Kansas.

  4. I think this is wonderful. Fred Phelps’ group is a strange and twisted bunch. I read the autobiography of one of his children who escaped the cult, and his description of it was of a micro-totalitarian, theocratic state. Quite frightening. It is good to know there are people who stand between those who hate and those who mourn.

  5. I hate war, I hate that we send people into it, I hate that sometimes it is even necessary. But no matter how I feel about war and whether it is right, wrong, immoral or just, the men and women who actually go out there and risk getting killed and injured always, ALWAYS, deserve my respect.

    I would like to think that if such groups were needed in my country I would volunteer too.

  6. Two years ago, a dear friends’s son was injured in Iraq by an IED. The boy — 20 years old — died in Bethesda, with his parents by his side. He never woke up.

    At the funeral, four motorcycle riders held flags and silently guarded. They didn’t participate, just protected the ceremony from those who would dishonor it. I was touched then that men and women who didn’t know Kelly would give up a Thursday for him. I’m thankful to you now to have a name for them.

    Regardless of political leanings or feelings about our involvement in overseas conflicts, protesting at a funeral is the epitome of bad taste. Like a child acting up because his parents aren’t paying enough attention to him, it draws only the wrong kind of awareness to one’s cause.

    Protesters for or against any cause — even though with which I agree — who show that level of thoughtless disregard and tactlessness win no support from me.

  7. As we near an impasse in the relations between Religious organizations, government and the public good it is nice to see a group of responsible people taking peaceful and honorable measures. As the debate over our souls continues it is wonderful to see a group dedicating themselves to respect and not counter-hatred. The way in which we react says more about us as people than the insane actions of extremists and zealots.

  8. Glad to hear about this. The protesters may have a right to be there, but what they’re doing is not civilized. The Constitution doesn’t mandate that you be decent: That part is up to you. The protesters don’t manage that — the riders do.

    Thanks.

  9. Fred Phelps and his cult of hate-mongering fanatics are NOT Christians, no matter what they may claim. Kudos to anyone who stands up to them in the name of respect and decency.

  10. Thank you for posting this. As the child of a two-war veteran, I have the deepest respect for those who choose to serve in our military, and appreciate the efforts of groups like this to honor the fallen.

  11. Awesome. I didn’t know that about the membership rules for PGR.

    I wish there were an organization like this that would show up at every single event the Phelps clan shows up to, not just military funerals. Those people make my blood pressure skyrocket.

  12. It’s amazing how something so good can come from something so vile. Kudos to the PGR for their respect, consideration and quiet dignity. I’m going to smile every time I think of this organization.

  13. The Phelps clan is evil. Their excuse for protesting at these funerals is that America has become so lax in their persecution of those gay homosexuals that God is punishing us by causing a war that would kill our young people. It’s all hogwash of course. In fact, the entire Phelps family is lawyers, and their whole goal is to piss someone off so bad that the WBC can sue that person for infringing on their First Amendment rights. It’s really just a disgusting money-grab. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure they really do hate gays.)

    Thank you for protecting those families in their time of need. I’ve known several people sent off to Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, and Afghanistan, and my uncle is in Afghanistan right now. I’m not sure I’d be able to hold it together if Phelps protested my uncle’s funeral.

  14. This is awesome. I looked over their site and saw that motorcycles weren’t required. However, in the cases where do have one, I was wondering if they require to be a Harley Rider? I ride a touring Kawasaki but would love to be part of this considering they have an incredible mission.

    Anyway, regardless if you have time to answer or not, thank you so much for posting this as I had no idea these people existed.

  15. @15 JJS, I agree with you.

    But are moderates are right to disavow the extreme fringe?

    Maybe Christian moderates need to accept that these hatemongers start from a Christian basis that went horribly wrong and accept responsibility for trying to educate them and fight the hate they spread. Condemn -yes, disown -no.

    A thankless and likely fruitless task, that needs doing anyway.

    If moderates of took this approach they may build trust with moderates of other beliefs. I worry that the washing of hands approach just doesn’t work.

  16. My cousin is a Marine serving his seventh tour in the middle east (three in Iraq, four in Afghanistan). My grandfather, father, uncle, and husband are all combat vets (mostly Marines).

    I’m grateful to all of you for what you do, and pray that it will not be necessary much longer.

  17. I’ve said this in a couple of other places, but we need to wait for one of the Westboro people to die, then hit the funeral with a protest more massive than they could ever assemble. Do unto them as they have done unto others.

  18. @#23 Brandon: The PGR doesn’t care what you ride. Many ride Harleys; I don’t. I’ve seen sport bikes, touring bikes, custom choppers…on Tuesday I rode next to a gorgeous new Moto Guzzi.

    @#29 Johnny Carruthers: While I understand the sentiment, I might suggest that two wrongs don’t make a right. Rather, perhaps we should follow Mike’s (@#26) more moderate approach. Condemn their actions, educate them, fight the hate.

  19. @#29, Johnny – They’d just sue for emotional distress, and you would have played into their hands.
    They’ve perverted the entire concept of the shield of law. Frontal attacks are useless.

  20. Kudos to your group.

    It’s too bad they can’t surround that idiot who calls himself a minister and keep him away from burning fires and playing with matches.

  21. @29

    I say we wait for one of them to die, and then take thousands of “protesters” with “we forgive you” signs.

    Thank God someone is taking a personal, appropriate, measured and respectful stance in reply to these hateful ….. persons.

  22. Reminds me of my favorite passage from “Earth” by David Brin:

    Even dying, riddled with bullets, this soldier apparently had a sense of symmetry, of poetry.

    A peacekeeping forces noncom sat near the boy, smoothing a lock of ruffled hair. The corporal looked up at Elena. “Senterius was a lousy shot. Never showed any promise at all with weapons. I guess he improvised though. He graduated.”

    Elena turned away, disgusted by the maudlin, adolescent sentiment. *Warriors,* she thought. *The world is finally growing up though. Someday soon we’ll be rid of them at last.*

    Still, why was it she all of a sudden felt as if she had walked into a temple? Or that the spirits of all the martyred creatures were holding silent, reverent watch right now, along with the mourning corporal?

    It was another woman’s low voice Elena seemed to hear then, so briefly it was all too easy to dismiss as an echo or a momentary figment of exhaustion. Still, she briefly closed her eyes and swayed.

    “There will be an end to war,” the voice seemed to say, with gentle patience.

    “But there will always be a need for heroes.”

  23. I’m actually more or less opposed to blanketing all soldiers, or all of anyone for that matter, with a “hero” tag, I’m much too familiar with the military to water down the title for a uniform alone – but I don’t have any problem with biker gangs intervening against intervening douchebag protesters either. So it’s all good.

    Even if I don’t like attaching the title to someone based on their job description I think most people should be safe from being picketed while they’re burying someone.

  24. Too bad the Patriot Guard Riders don’t show up when the Phelps clan performs their hateful protests against gays.

  25. Coming from the WBC part of the world, I can tell you that they have been around a lot longer than their publicity. They started at funerals of men who died of AIDS, those who they decided were homosexual. When that didn’t get them the notice they desired, they moved to the military funerals.

    My husband had a man under his command in his Guard unit killed in Afghanistan a few years ago, and since we’re in the area, the WBC showed up in force. The PGR showed up in kind, and I was so grateful for the family.

    Keep a good thought for the children of the WBC. They are born into it, and are trained in it from childhood. Their despicable actions at the behest of their parents and grandparents (all members of the WBC are from the one family for the most part) are truly not their choice.

  26. It’s sad how people hide behind words to justify their “holy wars”.

    Thanks PGR for being peacemakers.

  27. Just adding a thank you. What you do is powerful, generous and worthy.

    Also, I’d like to second the idea of “we forgive you” placards at the first available Phelps funeral. Alas, they are not likely to make the event public.

  28. A couple of years ago an old roommate of mine was killed in Afghanistan. The Patriot Guard accompanied his funeral. Thank you and your friends.

  29. I had the honor of watching the Patroit Guard as they served as escorts for a wounded soldier returning home from the war. Heroes, indeed. God Bless the PGR for what they do.

  30. Francesco@37: Shall we assume every soldier is a demon because some of them are? Or does “innocent until proven guilty” still mean something?

    A funeral is no place to be conducting a trial. The guest of honor has gone on to receive his due already, and to punish those who remain isn’t justice, it’s petty vengeance.

  31. @#43 Liz: You bring up an excellent point. It’s not all funerals for the PGR. They also escort wounded soldiers, send off service people who are departing for their tours of duty, and more. For my money, the happiest occasions are the “welcome homes.” The PGR escorts individuals and units that return at the end of their tours, as well. A recent mission had the PGR escorting a unit that landed at Camp Pendelton (near San Diego) about 400 miles to their home base near San Francisco.

    While shielding families from protesters is one part of the mission, the larger part is simply honoring those who deserve it, and thanking them for their service.

  32. Bless you and the PGR, Mykal. M husband is a Vietnam War Veteran. He came home to shouts of “baby killer!” and more. Those young men back then raced to the restroom to change their clothes so they wouldn’t be attacked. I am thankful to each and every person who has stood up in honor for our country.

  33. You know, I really didn’t think I’d have to moderate this post. But now, I see that there are people who take any opportunity to squat and spew in any blogger’s post/thread.

    A warning to any who decide to maneuver through this website in a condescending or hateful manner — you will be deleted. There will be no warning.

  34. I’ve heard about this group before, but didn’t know one could participate without a bike. I can’t travel out of state at the drop of a hat, but if I ever hear about a PGRs gathering in Seattle, I may well join them.

    Burns! makes a very salient point: we casually call fictional knights, starship crewmembers, and paladins “heroes” without, often, thinking that of their real-life counterparts.

    I’m well aware that soldiers, and cops, can be bad or go bad, as I am of the dangers of certain personality types who are drawn to those professions for the wrong reasons. But not only do the bad ‘uns comprise a small percentage of the whole, it seems to me that the “average” soldier, cop, and certainly firefighter is almost a paragon of patience, courage, compassion and strength.

    There needs to be a reverse of Sturgeon’s Law for the people who put themselves on the line for everyone else, particularly for those who do so in hostile territory: maybe 10% are “crap,” the other 90% are truly heroes.

  35. #33 Joel, I’m not a Christian, but I’ve got to say, your response strikes me as exactly what Jesus would do.

    #26 Mike, it takes a lot of courage to stand up and “accept responsibility” for a group like this and try to change them. Kudos to you.

    Obviously, you have no responsibilty for the actions these poor deluded asswits, but there is no doubt that if you don’t want your faith associated with something, you must stand up and let the rest of the world know they don’t represent you. Trying to change them, in my opinion, is futile, but the effort is certainly the real “Christian” thing to do.

  36. Thank you…as so many people have said. I find that I am torn. Part of me feels that the protesters should be shipped off to North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, China or many of the other unstable regions to learn more about IED’s! But, then I remind myself that those that fight for us fight not only for us normal folks, but also for these idiots. It is because of generations of people like these HEROES they so callously protest that they have the right to protest at all. I sometimes need to remind myself that freedom does indeed include freedom do be a complete retard. As horrible as it sounds I seem to remember a saying, (paraphrase alert) “I don’t agree with what you are saying, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” Not sure where I wanted to go with this, I guess the only important thing is that you are doing a great service to those that protect us. I can only hope that those that take out their anger on the people protecting them will come to their senses in time.

    Thank you again, but more importantly thank you to all those that you serve in our armed forces. God Bless You.

  37. @#48 CaseyL: I’m sure there are PGR events happening in the Seattle area, probably all too often. Just go to http://www.patriotguard.org, and click on “Click Here To Join” near the top center of the page. They’ll email you about missions that are happening local to where you are. No bike necessary.

  38. I love these guys. When Matt Maupin, who became a rallying point for supporting troops locally, came home, Phelps and his heretics promised to arrive en masse to make a point.

    Thanks to the riders, they were a non-presence at Maupin’s funeral. And if you’ve seen Maupin’s father, you know PGR was the perfect addition to the funeral procession.

  39. The first time I heard about that whacko church was about 7-8 years ago. I was driving by a church in Northern Virginia. I saw those nuts protesting outside. They had a sign up with a picture of Laura Bush. It had the caption “fag pimp”. I had no idea what these idiots were complaining about. When I googled them, I had the thought of “can’t we just vote to kick them out of the country”.

  40. Thank you for this post. The PGR arrived in our neighborhood a few months ago to welcome back one of our soldiers. It was so moving and wonderful – it brought tears to my eyes even though I don’t know the young man who is in the service. Thank you for all that you do!

  41. Yesterday I found this website http://godhatesprotesters.wordpress.com/ which is full of pictures of counter protests to the Westboro Baptist Church. It really makes them look even more ridiculous and shows their craziness more. The ones from Comic-Con are pretty epic, but I think my favorite was the sign “Don’t Feed the Trolls!”

  42. Thank you so much for the support, in 7 years in the Army I have had to deal with more than my fair share of controversy, from being spit on while in my Class A’s(dress uniform) to having protesters lined up when I returned from Iraq. It is services like this, the USO, VFWs around America and many other great organizations that really show me that it is worth every minute of my time away from my wife and newborn child.

    As far as how to handle people like this group of bigots with no religious affiliation(no way in heck am I calling them a Christian like my wife) is to not give them the press. There are ways to do this without sacrificing giving our service members the honors they deserve. Something as simple as not ever putting them on television or newspapers would do. They do this for the sole purpose of attention, and if we stop giving it to them they will go away. I say this having them protested one of my absolute best friends funeral, a man who joined the service because of me, if his family and I can ignore everything they do then it is the least the media can do for us.

    Again thank you for your support.

  43. It’s a fantastic thing you do and its tragic that organised hate grabs more media attention than organised respect.

    I live in a small town in Australia where I feel relatively untouched by the troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan and the suffering of families in the US as a result, but when I read that father’s words of thanks to the PGR, I had a very small, quiet cry to myself, feeling the empathy of a father of two sons I hope will never go to war.

    Also because I’m at work reading this on my desktop it’s a tiny bit embarrassing.

  44. @#53 Guess: No, we can’t kick them out. The sad irony is that those groups protest and spew hatred toward the very people who make it possible for them to do so with the protection of the U.S. constitution.

    @#57 Nick Reinartz: I agree whole-heartedly. I questioned whether I should even name them here, but figured it was necessary for context. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend, and I thank you for your service and the sacrifice of being away from your family.

  45. Patriot Guard ++

    If you’re inclined to get in the face of the “God hates fags” people, please stay away; they -want- you to come and make a scene. They want to be assaulted (remember, assault is in the mind of the victim — “I was afraid he’d hit me!”) so they can sue. Don’t fund the trolls.

    You could also establish a local instance of Pennies In Protest, a group doing a judo-like thing, taking the outrage, turning it into funding for the WBC’s targets, and then thanking the WBC for those donations!

  46. I have enormous respect for these guys. I lost a cousin to an IED in 2006, and Westboro came to picket his funeral. PGR kept them all out of view of the family.

  47. I do appreciate that if I had died when I was in Iraq, and the loathsome Phelps were to decide to make an ass of himself at my funeral, these guys would have been willing to help block him out. But I made sure my family knew that if that happened, I would not want any such help from any group that didn’t offer the same service to the non-military targets of Phelps’ protests. The hypothetical dead me wouldn’t care, but the real living me would not feel comfortable accepting special favors not offered to the less popular victims.

  48. I may be agnostic now but the thought and ideals of Phelps makes me sick to even consider him a decent Christan man. Despite the fact that he has tons of lawyers, considering his beliefs he’s gonna burn in hell for his hatred and all the chaos he’s caused. His children can be the best lawyers in the world, it won’t help him once he dies.

  49. James Pope seems to have some misconceptions here.
    As proud PGrR member myself, and having ridden over one hundred missions, “All military are heros.”
    They all do their duty and have little to say about where they go or who they fight.
    At any given time, they may well be asked to lay down their life for us.
    That, my friend, is a hero.
    Whether drafted or enlisted, they are our, front line of defense.
    Rwspect, honor and appreciation, is the least we can do for them.

    Also, the PGR is not a biker “gang” as stated in his post.
    Most are normal, everyday, citizens, who want to show we care.

    Nam vet, ’70 and ’72
    NDM, VSR, (2) PH, VCG W/PALM,
    Tan 2 (B-52, look it up)

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