The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR), a non-profit organization, is a relatively new phenomenon; but its sense of brother and sisterhood is not. The group itself was formed to protect one of their own: a fallen soldier.
In August of 2005, the American Legion Riders of Chapter 136 out of Kansas, learned that a group calling itself a Baptist church — yet not affiliated with any Baptist organization or church — was aggressively protesting at the funerals of soldiers. Once such incident involved the services for Indiana native Staff Sgt. Jeremy Doyle, who had died in Iraq. The Westboro “Baptist Church” protestors dragged the American flag on the ground, held signs opposing U.S, troops and blamed the American deaths in Iraq as punishment for social missteps.
Appalled at this blatant disrespect of a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice, the riders took action. They agreed to contact law enforcement and other motorcycle groups to join them in creating a battle plan to deal with the protestors and established a mission statement. Its two objectives are both simple and compassionate:
1. Show sincere respect for America’s fallen heroes, their families and their communities.
2. Shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors.
The group’s mission quickly expanded to include the funerals of law enforcement officers, fire department personnel and all first responders. The PGR is now largely focused on recognizing and honoring any active duty member or veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces from all previous wars and conflicts, and especially. the sacrifices of deceased soldiers, as well as their families and loved ones. As of November 2009, the PGR reported 179,460 members. There are Patriot Guard organizations in every state, the Pacific Protectorate (Guam, American Samoa, Mariana Islands, etc.), the Caribbean territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands), and Canada.
Over 1,350 of those members serve in Indiana under the motto, “We Stand for Those Who Stand for US “™. The Indiana organization (IPG) was formed in 2006. Richard (Dick) Wilbur is currently the State Captain.
The block-long procession of motorcycles came in twos down the quiet street of Speedway, Indiana, on that bright, chilly day of March 2009. At the entrance to a church parking lot, the first two leather-outfitted drivers turned, pulled their bikes up side by side into two spaces and cut their engines. Rhythmically, each pair of cyclists followed suit, and soon, a variety of huge, powerful bikes filled two rows of what had just been empty parking lanes. Men and women wearing sunglasses slowly dismounted, easing off their helmets as they swung their legs over their seats. Some tightened the bandanas curled around their foreheads. Patches sewn onto their jackets and caps from current and past wars, military service units, company slogans, and last names, glittered brightly in multi-colored threads against the brown and black fabrics. Each rider walked straight, sure and purposefully to another rider where hands were shook, smiles given and hugs received.
In the funeral home nearby, services were being held to honor three veterans, two of whom had died of natural causes. The third, Steve “Stevie” Ray, a Vietnam veteran, was one of their own, killed when a car ran a red light and smashed into his motorcycle.
Across the March wind, the strong voice of Bruce Craig, Senior Ride Captain for Central Indiana, suddenly blew over the social chatter, calling the riders to attention. In the millimeter of a second, everything changed. A new intensity wiped out the smiles as quickly as if a painter had smeared a wide stroke across the middle of a canvas. Silence filled the parking lot. All riders turned toward Bruce in respectful anticipation.
The men and women of the Indiana Patriot Guard stood at attention, ready to serve.
The Patriot Guard performs a variety of services, including as an escort for the hearse and family members to the grave site, where additional members stand at attention on both sides of the street, holding the American flag at a slight angle forward, in salute to the fallen brother or sister. The families of today’s “missions” requested only that the Guard line the sidewalk at the funeral home, and that is what they were preparing to do. “It is never about us,” stressed Bruce. “It is always what the families want us to do.”
Most of the riders who gather for the Guard’s missions are veterans, but a great many of them are not. Yet everyone knows some one who has served.
Theresa Taylor decided to become a rider with her boyfriend, Tim Cahill, who has 27 years of service under his belt. Tim won’t talk about his service or multiple deployments very much, but he will talk about the Indiana Patriot Guard. “I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” he says.
Tim’s first mission with the Guard was at the funeral services of a Kokomo, Indiana, soldier who had been killed in combat. “What I found out on that sleet, snow and foggy day was something so much more important. Protecting the family was important but what was huge was the peace it brought to the family to have so many people come to pay respect to their loved one in a time of grief.”
What Tim didn’t know was that his next deployment would put him at the receiving end of his fellow riders. He chuckles at the memory. “They sent me off at the airport with a hug and a hand shake. You haven’t been hugged until a 6 foot 3 inch, 300 pound biker who looks like his picture belongs on a Post Office Most Wanted wall hugs you as a tear runs down his cheek and thanks you for going to protect him and his family!”
The Guard’s support does not stop at the airport. The riders also send supply care packages to the troop and Tim received a shipment when he was deployed. “I made sure we passed all the goodies, necessities and letters around. The look on the GIs’ faces when you give them a package from home is priceless and indescribable. Last year the IPG sent over 11 tons of packages to our servicemen and women!”
Like Bruce, Tim is quick to add, “I want to make one point perfectly clear. It’s not about us, the IPG. It all about them, the service member and their families!”
That is not hard to believe. In addition to the honor escorts, the send offs and the packages, the Guard visits hospitals, participates in parades and charity rides to raise funds for veterans, and makes the rounds to the gravesites of state veterans to lay wreaths and offer a salute of gratitude.
The Patriot Guard also makes it clear that the group is not about war; it is about the man or woman who puts on the uniform. They are staunch, loyal and wise in their support of those who serve our country. The following statement is posted on the Guard’s web site:
“Until the world realizes that co-existence and peace is the best policy, our military will stand proud and tall and do what the Government instructs it to do. Our stance is that we support the military and whether you support the war or are against it, is not relevant to our Mission of Honor and Respect to the man and woman who wears the uniform.”
The riders of the IPG are reliable and generous in giving of themselves to veterans and their families. When SSG Margaret Howard died in April of 2009, the family requested the Guard be present. The day was full of sunlight and the air still and quiet when the motorcycles came onto the Church grounds. The riders gathered outside the doors of the Church and stood at attention with left hands behind backs, flags slightly down. When the service neared its end, several pairs of members got on their motorcycles and left for the cemetery, traveling in twos through the busy streets of Indianapolis. Several riders stayed behind to remain as escorts for the casket.
As the riders drove slowly into the Field of Valor at Crown Hill Cemetery, they spotted the troops, horses and caisson of the Indiana National Guard’s Honor Guard, standing ready. The riders parked their bikes, dismounted and quietly mingled. When the family procession entered the cemetery for SSG Howard’s burial, the talking ceased and the group erupted into a flurry of activity. Flags suddenly appeared in each rider’s hand, and lines were quickly and effortlessly formed on both sides of the street and the sidewalk next to the grave. The eternal flame of valor burned brightly at the end of the sidewalk, in front of the memorial dedicated to all fallen soldiers. Left hands again snapped behind backs, feet were spread hip-width apart, heads were still, and eyes looked straight ahead. Once again, the men and women of the Indiana Patriot Guard stood at attention, fulfilling their mission.
The slow and rhythmic click click click of the horses’ hooves against the hard road echoed across the ground to where the Guard stood. As the caisson drew near to the gravesite, hands shot up to foreheads in salutes.
The Guard remained at attention throughout the ceremony. When it was over, the members quietly dispersed and set about the task of rolling up the flags. When all flags were gathered, the members walked to their motorcycles or cars, and slowly drove out of the cemetery.
Recently, the Guard was asked to address a local group of sixth graders. When the Senior Ride Captain for West Central Indiana, Andy “Maverick” Shirley walked in, the 300 students applauded. Maverick was impressed with the respect he was shown by the students. “Almost all of them know somebody who has served, even if it isn’t in their own families.”
Maverick also speaks of the Guard’s mission to escort the body of a fallen soldier from the plane to the funeral home. He shakes his head at the memory of earlier days when soldiers arrived in cardboard boxes. “You’d know right away where they kept the soldier. There was plastic put up all around and a sign that said, ‘Handle with extreme care.’” Now, he says, it’s different. “They come on chartered jets in caskets. I’m glad all that’s changed for the better.”
Sometimes, the Guard’s mission is light and brimming with smiles.
On October 31, 2009, nearly 150 members of the National Guard’s 2-238 aviation unit returned
from a yearlong deployment to Iraq and Kuwait. The unit was met by parents, spouses, children,friends, media…and the Indiana Patriot Guard.
Dick took charge of the motorcycle escort from the Indianapolis airport to the National Guard post, while Bruce coordinated the flag lines inside the hangar.
When the roar of the motorcycles escorting the buses entered the post, the group members inside the hanger quickly lined up by its door. Family members were allowed and shown how to properly hold the flag. “This is one of the happy occasions!” grinned Bruce. 50-60 flags made a colorful and proud aisle inside the hangar door as it slowly opened to reveal the unit standing ready for entrance.
After the 2-238 was reunited with their families and friends, the Indiana Patriot Guard began to collect its flags. Quickly and expertly, they rolled each fabric tight around its pole and carefully set it upon a table. Piles of red, white and blue quickly appeared. When all flags were accounted for, members buttoned their jackets and slipped on their motorcycle gloves. As the flags were carefully lifted and carried out, the remaining members turned from the tables. Good-byes were said and pats were given on the back. But instead of moving away, the members stopped to take one last look at the crowd.
Gentle smiles spread across their faces and nods were given to the unseeing crowd. Their mission was accomplished. One by one, the Indiana Patriot Guard turned back and walked quietly out the open hanger door.
The missions of the Indiana Patriot Guard continue. Ron Coleman, Assistant State Captain, posted the latest. The Guard was requested to escort the casket of 29-year-old Terre Haute native Sergeant Dale R. Griffin, U.S. Army. Ron described Griffin as one “who paid the ultimate sacrifice in his service to our country.” Ron also added, “You do not have to be a veteran or ride a motorcycle. Come as you are, all ages, no matter your mode of transportation, bringing your heart and your respect of our military…that’s all we ask.”
And so stand the men and women of the Indiana Patriot Guard, with honor and respect, ready to protect, ready to respond. Asking so little…yet giving so much.
© Karen St. John 2009