A Mission of Honor - the Patriot Guard Riders

I recently wrote the below article for the Midwest Motorcyclist journal. It was published in the August edition of that newspaper.  I thought I would post it here so that folks who don't have access to Midwest Motorcyclist can also read about the PGR. It's a marvelous organization whose members stand in honor for today's veterans and casualties of war.


A dozen motor officers led the procession of motorcycles, looking very sharp in their dress uniforms as well as the skillful manner in which they operated their machines. Immediately behind the police were 83 Michigan Patriot Guard riders – mostly on Harleys – with a mix of other machines filling out the half-mile long motorcade. The parade of motorcycles, followed by family members in funeral home vehicles, had begun minutes earlier at the gates of Flint’s Bishop Airport.  It was there that the body of Sgt. Joseph Lilly, killed in action in Afghanistan just days earlier, arrived on a chartered flight. Sgt. Lilly’s family requested that the Michigan branch of the Patriot Guard Riders serve as an honor guard for his arrival at the airport and later at the funeral home. They also invited the Guard to be part of a procession of motorcycles from the airport to the funeral home; a visually and emotionally powerful sight. Every facet of the mission was based on support and respect for Sgt. Lilly and his family.

 The Patriot Guard Riders was formed by a group of Kansas Vietnam veterans, who were also members of the American Legion Riders, in 2005. Michigan’s branch was formed the following year. It was the unimaginable protests staged by members of the tiny Westboro Baptist Church, a church also located in Kansas and led by the Phelps family that prompted these veterans to create the concept of the Patriot Guard. The Phelps staged protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in action causing unimaginable grief with signs and statements such as “Thank God for dead soldiers”, “God hates your dead soldier” and similar insults that stagger the imagination of any caring and respectful person.  The intent of the Guard was to organize motorcyclists to form a protective line between the protesters and the family of a fallen soldier. There would be no interaction or even acknowledgement of the protesters, simply a silent and respectful line of flag holders separating them from those attending the funeral.  This tactic worked marvelously well at many funerals across the country at which Westboro tried to protest. The signs and shouts of the protesters were muted by a wall of flags.
As with all military funeral and welcoming home events in which the Guard participates, the average age of participants in the solemn event on that hot June day at Bishop Airport was reflective of Vietnam Era veterans. Many younger riders also participate, including veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is fitting that Vietnam veterans continue to fill the ranks of those on hand to show respect to veterans returning from overseas service today.

A new attitude of the Guard has evolved with influence from the many Vietnam Era veterans who are members. This underlying principle is that no veteran today, especially those killed in action, will be the victim of the kind of apathy or outright antipathy that Vietnam veterans endured forty years earlier.  Never Again” is the motto of these older vets, and by the thousands they have stood for hours in burning sun or freezing cold in flag lines at funeral homes, churches and cemeteries. 

Anyone can become a member of the Patriot Guard Riders. Being a motorcyclist, or a veteran, is not a requirement.  All one needs is a desire to honor those who serve our country.  As a Vietnam veteran I am immensely proud of this noble undertaking that my brothers from another time and war have undertaken. As a motorcyclist I am also filled with pride every time I see riders contributing their time and energy to this splendid mission.  There is something profoundly powerful about a funeral procession in which motorcycles are a key component.  Cars stop along the road and people on sidewalks stop to stare, filled with a solemn awe at the sight, while the procession slowly passes.

 On a frequent basis the gatherings are much happier events because the Guard is also in the vanguard of numerous welcoming home ceremonies for individual soldiers or entire units returning from service in combat zones.  Thanks to the Patriot Guard Riders, servicemen and women across the country are receiving the kind of respect and honor that is owed to all who serve and sometimes die for our land.