By Staff Sgt. Russ Scalf
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Standing guard in a driving rain, resolute to the howling winds that are chilling them through their distinctive cut-off vests, a group of patriots line the entrance of a North Little Rock church paying their respects to a fallen veteran.
On this day, or any other, the members of the Patriot Guard Riders are invited guests of family members, bearing flags and carrying the casket in a somber and absolute tribute to another of America’s great heroes. This delicate mission has been entrusted to a group whose only prerequisite for membership is both specific and simple: respect.
“We were formed in 2005 in Topeka, Kansas, to be a counter protest group,” said Doug Odom, Patriot Guard Riders, Ark. state captain. “We would ride to the funerals and line the motorcycles up and rev the engines in front of the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. Today we don’t do that, now we line up our flags in front of them and shield the families.”
Nowadays the mission and membership of the Patriot Guard Riders has evolved to match their non-violent vigils. While many of its members are veterans or active duty service members, it is not a requirement to participate, nor is being a motorcycle rider.
“Today we also do sendoffs for our troops deploying overseas,” said Odom. “We go to see them off from wherever they leave from, and often we’ll escort them out of town, and we’ve escorted them out of state. We want to make them feel good and make them feel wanted, and let them know that they are appreciated for what they do.”
While the current trend of support for military service members often seems to be time-honored, it was not the case for many veterans like Odom.
“I went to Vietnam by myself, and I came back by myself. And I experienced everything there was to experience in a war, and I came back to a very unappreciative country, unappreciative people,” said Odom. “I’ll never forget getting on the bus at Castle Air Force Base when I came back wounded. I was on the hospital bus, but it had metal shields on the windows. I asked the bus driver what they were for, and he replied, you’ll find out. As we drove out of Castle Air Force Base’s main gate we were pelted with tomatoes, and eggs, and everything else they could throw. So, those shields on the windows were just dripping with America’s hate for us. So, I don’t want anyone else to experience that.”
These types of shared experiences give the guardians the strength to ride through stormy weather. They have arrived at destinations beyond the contempt of perfect strangers, which has helped them grow their ranks to 2,800 members in the state of Ark. Many of the volunteers fulfill duties other than funeral services.
Walter Prouty, a Patriot Guard ride captain, recently orchestrated Wreaths Across America organization’s local ceremony. Each December wreath laying ceremonies are conducted at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as veterans’ cemeteries, other locations in all 50 states and abroad to remember fallen heroes, and honor those currently serving. Patriot Guard Riders were in attendance, and helped lay wreaths during the official ceremony.
“I got into this to help stop protesters from getting near families at funerals,” said Prouty. “But when you get in it, you kind of change when you see how touched the families are when we honor their loved ones. It turns into a labor of love, it touches you every mission.”
There ceremony brought together members from all four branches of the military, and the Coast Guard, and together with Patriot Guard Riders wreaths were placed at memorial markers and graves at the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock.
“The majority of our missions are not for killed in action veterans who have recently been deployed,” said Odom, “the majority of our missions are for World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans who are dying nowadays. We are also very concerned with the number of suicides we bury. We’ve buried eight in Arkansas this year. We want to be there for our veterans.”
Through their website the Patriot Guard offers a variety of support for its members, frominformation and forums on veterans’ topics, to scholarships for families of fallen military members.
This diverse group of men and women are committed to riding in honor and support of those who have served, and those who continue to serve.
“Being in the military is not the most glamorous job in the world,” said Prouty. “People in the military sacrifice a whole lot to be in because they love the United States, and I was one of those. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. It means a lot to honor these veterans who have done so much for their country.”
For more information on the Patriot Guard Riders and how you can become involved, visit their website at www.patriotguard.org.
To see more information, including a video on this article, visit www.littlerock.af.mil.