A long line of flags wave behind a succession of roaring motorcycles as they proudly join a hero’s funeral procession. They’ve come to pay their respects to fallen soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country and offer comfort to the families who endure unspeakable grief.
On a good day they bid soldiers farewell at deployment or wait at the airport to welcome soldiers home. They do it because they consider it an honor, a duty to show their support for the men and women who sacrifice so much for their country. They are the Patriot Guard Riders.
Korean, Vietnam, and Desert Storm veterans and volunteers attend funerals, deployments and other events all over the United States. The grass roots organization began in 2005 in response to disruptive and disrespectful protestors who picketed military funerals in Kansas.
When invited by family members or military personnel, the Patriot Guard comes ready with flags, banners and lots of support. By forming a row of flags, the Patriot Guard Riders block protestors from view and drown out hateful slurs as they rev their engines and turn up their radios.
Although they began by attending funerals for soldiers killed in active duty, today they honor veterans from all wars, as well as first time responders in the community, such as police, firemen and emergency medical crews.
In just four years the movement has grown quickly, numbering thousands of members. “It spread like wild fire,” said Pam Tate, Assistant State Captain for Oklahoma’s Patriot Guard. “They didn’t realize in six months they would have well over 15,000 members. Patriotism is alive and well in America.”
According to Tate, showing support for troops and their families is very meaningful to veterans who didn’t receive a welcome home; veterans who understand well the sting of persecution from protestors. “A lot of us are from the Vietnam War Era and we don’t want what happened to those servicemen to ever happen again. It’s a healing process to these veterans when soldiers or family members hug them and say, ‘thank you for being here, for showing me you care.’”
The loss of a son or daughter, husband or wife is devastating for families and Tate said it’s those funerals for young servicemen and women that are the most difficult to attend. “Sometimes we’re asked to go inside for the service and stand with our flags. When we’re honoring a retired veteran who’s had a long full life, it’s more like a celebration of their life but when it’s a young man, a young woman…it’s very hard.”
Come blazing heat or freezing rain, about 1,500 men and women in Oklahoma take time out of their busy schedules to honor their country. Tate says it’s a small price pay in exchange. “No matter what branch of the military soldiers sign up for, they sign on the bottom line, ‘I will give my life for you.’ That’s why I do this. For people like me and other volunteers who never served, this is a way we can serve our country.”
When Patriot Guard members are not providing escort at funerals, shaking hands with soldiers before their deployment missions or welcoming them home, they reach out to Gold Star families who have lost their servicemen and women. “We have a lot of them who join the Patriot Guard. We meet once a month with gold star families in a restaurant. If they’re having a hard time they can talk it out with veterans who have been there or get a hug from volunteers like me who didn’t serve. Sometimes they need someone to make them laugh. We become a family.”
Every June they embark on “A Ride to Remember,” placing flags on the graves of servicemen who have died in active duty since October 2001. They say a prayer and have a moment of silence for all veterans. Members of the Patriot Guard also send out care packages to soldiers throughout the year and anything they can do to show they care.
Their efforts are appreciated. Tate said they receive letter after letter saying things like, “Words are not enough but thank you, thank you for showing honor and respect for my loved one, thank you for being there to protect us, thank you so much for showing your appreciation.” Some ask if they can join and the answer is always yes.
The Patriot Guard truly is an honor guard, spreading patriotism and celebrating the lives of those who keep us safe even to the death. For more information about the Patriot Guard Riders, visit www.patriotguard.org. To invite them to an event honoring servicemen, contact Pam Tate at 227-2062.