At first glance they look like a gang of renegade bikers with patches and rocker bars adorning their bikes and leather vests as they gather in a Coronado grocery store parking lot. There are no two individuals alike, each bike, vest, and the various other allegoric symbols speak of very diverse gathering of souls with a unifying bond and with a single solemn objective.
Most of them are Vietnam vets, but their are also simply patriots both male and female. The leader calls the group to attention and they gather around him. He explains the mission to newcomers in the group, and in this case it is to escort a young Seal Team member’s coffin to Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.
He hands out dog tags to each member. Each time they assemble, new members get their “first mission” tags, but most are getting another one of many. Instructions on how to process in unison along the highways are then given followed by precise directions.
Frenchie, a biker/pastor/patriot, is called upon to give the blessing. It is simple but powerful — the words delivered in such reverence — big men are moved almost to tears.
A single but most powerful word is the basis for such dedication. It is never spoken in casual tones by these Patriots because it is most cherished, revered, and never ever used lightly.
Every action by the Guard speaks of “RESPECT” for the memory of the fallen and their grieving loved ones.
The waves of emotion ripple through the crowds gathered along the roadside to watch this awesome, yet bittersweet convoy. The first into view are the rippling stars and stripes affixed to the back of the bikes followed by the sound of powerful Harley Davidson motorcycles like a division of Sherman tanks as they thunder by.
Even more moving is to watch the dark green military buses carrying the fallen soldier and his family as they pass next. Even after they have passed, some men are still saluting as they disappear across the Coronado Bay Bridge.
The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) is a motorcycle club whose members attend the funerals of U.S. Armed Forces members, firefighters, and police at the invitation of the deceased’s family. Patriot Guard Riders’ representatives state that they are not a chartered motorcycle club, but a group of patriotic individuals with an unwavering respect for those who risk their lives for America’s freedom and security.
The group was formed in 2005 to shelter and protect the deceased’s family from protesters such as the Westboro Baptist Church, who claim that the deaths of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are divine retribution for American tolerance of homosexuality. PGR members position themselves to physically shield the mourners from the presence of the Westboro protesters by blocking the protesters from view with their motorcade or by having members hold American flags. The group also drowns out the protesters’ chants by singing patriotic songs or by revving their motorcycle engines.
Although initially founded by motorcyclists, the organization is open to anyone regardless of political affiliation, veteran status, or whether they ride or not. The only prerequisite is “a deep respect for those who serve our country: military, firefighters, or law enforcement”. The Patriot Guard was established in Mulvane, Kansas at the American Legion Post 136 in 2005.
The group’s mission quickly expanded to include the funerals of law enforcement officers, fire department personnel, all first responders, and any active duty member or veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces from all previous wars and conflicts, and it is now largely focused on recognizing and honoring the sacrifices of fallen service members as well as their families and loved ones. As of March 2011, PGR reported over 220,000 members. In addition to their attendance at funerals, the group also greets troops returning from overseas at welcome home celebrations, deployment ceremonies, and perform volunteer work for veteran’s organizations such as Veterans Homes. The group also assists families in financial difficulties with travel and housing arrangements. They also visit military hospitals to encourage and honor wounded service members of the United States Armed Forces.