America Supports You: Motorcycle Group Honors Fallen, Families
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 22, 2006 A motorcycle group that travels the country attending military funerals is experiencing near-explosive growth, the group's national spokesman reported today.
Patriot Guard Riders members attend a military funeral to show support for the fallen servicemember and family members. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
Patriot Guard Riders attend military funerals to show respect for those who have sacrificed and to shield their loved ones from interruptions by protestors.
The group, which started as a grassroots effort in the fall in response to protesters who were attending military funerals, now has 20,000 members in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and Germany, Kurt Mayer said in an interview with American Forces Press Service.
Fifteen thousand members have joined the group during the past seven weeks alone, he said.
"It's all happening kind of fast. It's amazing the response we've gotten," Mayer said. "It shows that all this has hit a raw, patriotic nerve, and we're attracting a cross-section of America -- everyone from CEOs to coal miners and aerospace engineers to corner-garage mechanics."
These members, who range in age from 14 to 82, form a loose perimeter around funeral services and create a "corridor of honor," hoisting flags along the funeral procession route, Mayer explained. "It's a very impressive sight to see 100 flags on either side," he said. "There's a wash of overwhelming emotion."
The Patriot Guard Riders started attending funerals and forming a line of flags and motorcycles to block people attending military funerals from having to see protesters who began appearing at military funerals. But as the group has grown and more families request the honor cordon, the riders now attend all funerals of fallen servicemembers when asked, Mayer said.
Mayer emphasized that the group attends funerals only at the family's request. "We recognize that this is a very private affair, and we ensure that the family wants us to be there and that we're not intruding on their feelings," he said.
The goal, he said, is to show respect for fallen servicemembers and "to show a grieving family and a sometimes shocked community that America still cares."
"The most important thing we can do is let families know that the nation cares," Don Woodrick, the group's Kentucky captain, told reporters following a recent memorial service at Fort Campbell, Ky. "When a total stranger gets on a motorcycle in the middle of winter and drives 300 miles to hold a flag, that makes a powerful statement."
"Each of us holding a three-by-five (foot) American flag (is letting) the family know and providing some confront that yes, America really does care about their loss," agreed Jason Wallin, a group member.
"We're just simply Americans doing the right thing," Mayer said, noting that the effort transcends politics. "We're completely apolitical," he said. "Some members of our organization are pro-war and some are completely, completely against the war. What we have in common is an unwavering respect for the fallen and the sacrifice they have made."
"The group is made up mostly of motorcyclists who have served in the military, but it's not a requirement," Mayer said.
"We don't care what you ride, what your political views are, or whether you're a 'hawk' or a 'dove,'" according to the group's Web site. "It is not a requirement that you be a veteran. It doesn't matter where you're from or what your income is. You don't even have to ride. The only prerequisite is respect."
Mayer said the group has received "very, very, very positive" responses from the families of individuals whose funerals it has attended. "Without exception, there's a very heartfelt response," he said.
The organization's Web site has a feature titled "We Get Letters," which contains - among other testimonials - expressions of gratitude from the families of fallen servicemembers.
The family of Marine Lance Cpl. Adam VanAlstine, who was killed in February by an improvised explosive device in Ramadi, Iraq, expressed deep appreciation for the group's participation in his memorial service earlier this month in Superior, Wisc.
"What an amazing relief and comfort you provided to our grieving family and friends -- not to mention providing the coolest and most honorable way to enter a service that any of us had ever seen," the family wrote following the service. "Your service to us was a real blessing Please know that your show of love and support was felt by all. We were so proud to have you with us that day. Thank you for your honor and respect of our fallen hero."
The family of Army Pfc. Peter Wagler, killed in January by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad, expressed a similar sentiment. "I have never seen such a display of flags as we encountered when leaving the church," one family member wrote. "I have a video in my head of the 'tunnel of flags,' but really wish I had an actual video of it. Many people have told me how meaningful the flags were to them; many shed tears as they drove through the tunnel.
"As for your protecting us from the demonstrators," he wrote, "I looked for them, but could not see them. I never did see them."
Wagler loved motorcycles and planned to buy one after returning from Iraq, the family member wrote. "He won't get to do that, but he would have loved the tremendous display you put on. Our family feels inadequate in expressing our thanks, but please know that we deeply appreciate what you did for us."