Many people regularly enjoy and practice freedom and patriotism. For others, these words have lost practical meaning and they treat holidays such as Memorial Day as three-day weekends for travel and fun, rather than the commemoration of men and women who died defending their country and freedoms.
Taking respect for current and veteran soldiers beyond the life of the soldier, the Patriot Guard Riders, an all-volunteer non-profit organization, extend their respect to the soldiers’ families by escorting military funerals.
The group of bikers formed in 2005 in response to members of Westboro Baptist Church declaring they intended to protest the funeral of Sgt. John Doles in Chelsea, OK. The protesters said God was killing United States troops in Afghanistan because of the military’s tolerance of gay soldiers. Though not yet named at that time, the Patriot Guard stood between the Westboro Baptist Church members and Sgt. Doles’ family. Eventually, the Patriot Guard’s slogan was created, and reads “Standing For Those Who Stood For Us.”
Though the Patriot Guard began because of protesters, over the years protesters have become the least of their concern. “The role of the protesters, I think, has been blown out of proportion by the media,” says Chip “Night Sentry” Oehring, 53, Assistant State Captain of the Patriot Guard Riders of Georgia. “It’s a story, so run with it...In the six years I’ve been doing this, I’ve experienced protesters twice in the state of Georgia. They say they’re going to be here at every funeral. They’ve been here two times, and they’ve been irrelevant, both of the two times.”
When asked about what he thought their service meant to the families, Oehring says, “I think, for the most part, they’re very, very pleased…Because of the media hype, a lot of families, especially young widows, will get very nervous.” Oehring recalls one young widow in particular. “I had one lady tell me that from the time she heard her husband was killed, until the time she saw us rolling up to her front door to escort her to the funeral home she hadn’t felt safe. And the minute she saw us roll up to her front door, she was like ‘It’s going to be okay.’ ‘Cause we sent about twenty bikes to her home.”
Oehring joined the Patriot Guard in early 2006. His first mission (the Patriot Guard’s name for their work) was assisting with the burial of a young marine lance corporal who was killed in Iraq. Once killed, a marine is not allowed to be left alone until burial. A miscommunication between multiple parties resulted in the deceased marine potentially being left alone the night before his burial. The Patriot Guard escorting the marine, however, would not allow that. Several of them were veterans of various branches and kept watch over the deceased until his fellow marines could arrive the following morning. “During that particular mission,” Oehring said, “a lot of things solidified for me that it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Oehring says that the families of fallen soldiers are the most important thing to the Patriot Guard, “For us, it’s all about [the families]. It’s about letting them know that there are people out there that really care about what they’ve been through, about their sacrifice, about the service of their loved one.”
In addition to escorting military funerals, the Patriot Guard escorts the unclaimed ashes of fallen soldiers to interment and, occasionally, attend first responder funerals.
Not all of the Patriot Guard Riders are bikers or even veterans. They also include several “cagers” (car riders) who assist with flag transport as “flag wagons,” as well as a number of other support duties. “We couldn’t function as well as we function without that dedicated group of people,” Oehring says. “None of them ride motorcycles.” The only prerequisite for joining, as stated on their website, is respect for the fallen soldiers and their families.
The Patriot Guard only attends funerals at the request of the family and will go out of their way to attend every funeral asked of them. Dealing with issues like vacation days, weather, and amount of notice, it is not always possible. Depending on circumstances, they may escort with as few as four bikes or as many as a few hundred, but they always do their utmost to show the grieving family that they care. “There’s a family there that lost a loved one,” Oehring says. “And they’re going to be making a sacrifice every day for the rest of their lives, because that person’s not there, because that person put on a uniform to defend our way of life.”
Discussing the volunteer Patriot Guard’s sacrifice, Oehring says, “They’re (soldiers) the ones who are making the sacrifice. They’re families are the ones who are making the sacrifice. They’re the ones who are giving everything for this country. All we do is throw a leg over the saddle and ride a few hundred miles. That’s no big deal.”