More than 50 motorcyclists, each holding a 3- by 5-foot American flag, stood quietly. They were close together, almost elbow to elbow, forming a semi-circle around the entrance to the small church. I was waiting in line to go inside with about 20 other people. No one spoke, and the most apparent sound was that of flags whipping the air.
Several of the riders stepped back to allow room for a casket to be carried up the stairs. They turned to face the casket and then stepped back into place.
I made eye contact with one of the riders and he acknowledged me with a nod. “Who are you?” I asked him in a hushed voice.
“We’re the Patriot Guard Riders,” he told me.
“And how did you know Laura?” I asked.
“I didn’t know her. I’m here with my fellow riders—this is what we do—to show her family and friends that we care, and to show respect for a fallen hero.”
Wow. I was speechless. This motorcycle group was here to honor someone they had never met. Laura, my friend’s niece, had been a lieutenant, junior grade in the U.S. Navy. She died in a helicopter crash during a search and recover training mission. Joe Giglio, as state captain for the (Southern) California Patriot Guard, had contacted the family and asked if they wanted the Guard at the service. The mission of the Guard is to attend funeral services as invited guests of those who have served in the armed forces.
More than two hours later when we came out of the church, the Patriot Guard members were still standing in position holding their flags. Then they got on their motorcycles to escort and follow the family to the cemetery. Once there, they formed a line to the left of the gravesite behind the other guests, flags flying, and stood back in silence. They remained there until the service was over.
Later I talked with other Guards, including several state captains, to find out more about the organization. The group was formed in 2005 by several people attempting to shield a mourning family from a group of protestors at a service for a sergeant. Since then, the Patriot Guard’s objective has evolved into something different. Their mission is to show respect for fallen heroes, their families and their communities. If needed, they will also shield the family from outside interruptions or “UGs”—uninvited guests—incidents of which vary across the country. Giglio, who rides a Honda Valkyrie Interstate, says that out of the approximately 50 services he has attended in California two have been interrupted, and the families had been unaware of the UGs because of the Guard.
The Guard’s numbers have grown to more than 100,000 members nationwide in two years, and they don’t care where you’re from, your financial situation or about your political views. They don’t care what kind of motorcycle you ride; in fact, it’s not even a requirement to ride, though it’s estimated that about 90 percent do. The only prerequisite to being a Patriot Guard is respect. More than 100 motorcycle clubs ride with the Guards, including such groups as Bikers Making a Difference, the Christian Motorcyclists Association, the Concours Owners Group, several chapters from the Gold Wing Road Riders Association and Harley Owners Group, the Honda VTX Owners Association, Motorcycle Touring Association, Rolling Thunder, Run For The Wall, and on and on.
Each state has a captain (California has two as it’s estimated that there are several thousand members in that state alone). The captain subscribes to a DOD (date of death) release and then contacts the main office at the casualty assistance department through the military. The military then becomes the liaison between the family and the Patriot Guards, and finds out if the family would like the Guards to attend. Most of the time (“It’s very rare we are not invited”) the families want them there. The Guards do not show up uninvited. If the answer is yes, the state captain posts it on the website and either he or the road captain puts together an itinerary. The number who show up varies—“It could be a dozen or hundreds.” And weather seems to be only a slight distraction as the Guards have shown up in extreme conditions. One Guard on the East Coast said that the roads were slick one day so he parked his two wheels to ride his trike instead; “I figured I’d get more traction with three wheels, and I was going to be there even if Mother Nature wasn’t going to cooperate.”
The Patriot Guard’s purpose is not to be political or take sides, I was told by the Guards I spoke with. One told me he was at a funeral for a soldier with fellow Patriot Guards, one of whom after the service went somewhere else to protest the war. Giglio said, “It’s an awesome sight to observe differences cast aside and see riders standing together. I recently saw a Blue Knight [police officer] and an outlaw motorcycle gang member standing side by side at a service.” The members include a diverse group of people from different backgrounds and varying ages, many of whom are veterans—some from the Korean War. The one thing they have in common is the Guard’s motto: “Standing for Those Who Stood for US.”
Lance Bultena, state captain for South Dakota, rides a Honda Gold Wing. He said one of the most memorable services he has attended was for a MIA veteran whose body had been recovered. His plane had crashed somewhere in the Himalayas more than 60 years ago. A Sherpa discovered the wreckage last year and reported it to the Chinese. The Chinese figured out it was an American plane, and Americans were able to identify the body. The man’s remains were brought home and buried next to his parents, who had passed away in the 1980s. Apparently, the mother knew her son would return home one day so she had bought a plot next to theirs. Bultena said it was an honor for him and his fellow Patriot Guards to be asked to be pallbearers, and to see the veteran finally laid to rest next to his parents.
In addition, the Patriot Guard Riders hold fundraisers for the families of those who have lost loved ones in the military. The Guards collect goods and raise money—whatever is needed. They also do welcome-home missions and visit VA hospitals and veterans. Again, Bultena recounts a rewarding experience: “We went to visit a 91-year-old fighter pilot from World War II. He’d outlived his family and had had no visitors in a long time. It was overwhelming to see his face when 15 riders, all decked-out in leather, walked into his room. He was thrilled!” Bultena went on to talk about how this veteran had ridden motorcycles, and got a kick out of hearing about the bikes they were riding and comparing them to the bikes he’d ridden.
Don Bright is the state captain for Pennsylvania and rides a Harley Electra Glide. Bright joined the Patriot Guard in December 2005, and two months later became state captain. He spends many hours each week devoting time to the members he holds in such high regard. He laughed when he described himself “and a lot of my fellow Guards” as being “very opinionated people. Sometimes it’s like herding cats because we’ve got varying ideas. But then we all come together and we’ve got this one goal, and that’s honor and respect for our fallen.” He has done the Run For The Wall the last three years, so when he got a request from a family to escort a casket more than 200 miles, it was an honor for him. “There were some Guards who rode the whole way, and some we picked up along the way—we started out in Pennsylvania, rode through Maryland and finished in Virginia at Arlington National Cemetery.”
One of the Guards told me, “I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been thanked for attending a service, but the reality is that we’re the ones to say thank you. It’s such a small price to pay for someone who gave his or her all. It’s all about honoring fallen American heroes and that’s where our hearts are.”
Bultena said, “It’s not about me. It’s about them. That’s why we do all this. We do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
As a motorcyclist, a group of riders will always draw my attention, and the sight of this motorcycle group riding and standing together will stay with me for the rest of my life.
The Patriot Guard Riders give selflessly of their time to honor a stranger’s memory because they believe that person was a hero. It seems to me that the veterans they honor aren’t the only heroes.
This article is dedicated to the family of Laura Berwager Mankey, who was a lieutenant, junior grade in the U.S. Navy, and died in a helicopter crash during a search and recover training mission in 2007. Fly high in heaven, Laura.
For more information about the Patriot Guard Riders, visit patriotguard.org.