When called for a scheduled event, Patriot Guard Riders come from everywhere; each proudly carrying an American flag. They follow in the tradition of Paul Revere, but instead of horses, they ride choppers – motorcycles. They are a significant patriotic presence at military funerals and burials in this area, including those for Tigard’s Army Private First Class Andrew Keller and Tualatin’s Marine Corporal Matthew Lembke, both killed in action in Afghanistan in America’s War against Terror.
For most of us, our first awareness of the Patriot Guard comes when approaching a church for a funeral. You see Guard members, both men, and women, each enthusiastically waving 3 x 5 foot American flags, lined along roadways and around the front of the building. They set up an hour before the family arrives and continue vigilance of the outside church area throughout the service.
Or you may see them in a motorcade, either escorting a military casualty and family home from the airport after receiving a body or in a procession going from a church to Willamette National Cemetery for final military burial honors. At Willamette, they seem to be everywhere, lining the roads and the service areas.
There are no official uniforms for the Patriot Guard. Those with “hogs” usually wear leathers. Others wear their normal clothing. Many have vests with “Guard” patches. Kerchief headbands, ball caps, and cowboy hats are normal headgear. Membership is open to everyone – you do not have to “ride” or be a vet. They are all volunteers. All that is required is “a deep respect for those who serve our country; military, firefighters, or law enforcement”.
The Patriot Guard was initially formed in Mulvane, Kansas at American Legion Post 136 in 2005, largely to counter protests from a small anti-gay Kansas church group that claims deaths of our American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are punishments for military policy on homosexuality. This church group now travels nationwide to military funerals and other events, using repulsive “hate” signs and chants to attract publicity for its views. Guard members physically position themselves to shield mourners from the protesters with their bodies, flags, and motorcycles. They drown out the protester’s chants by singing patriotic songs or revving their motorcycle engines.
Although still primarily dedicated to recognizing and honoring the sacrifices of fallen service members and their families; the Patriot Guard mission has expanded to include the funerals of law enforcement officers, fire department personnel, all first responders, and any active duty member or veteran of US Armed Forces from all previous wars and conflicts. The Guard also greets troops returning home from overseas at welcome home celebrations, deployment ceremonies and do volunteer work for veteran’s organizations such as Veteran’s Homes. They assist affected families in financial need with travel and housing arrangements and also encourage and honor wounded service members in military hospitals.
In Oregon, the Patriot Guard has been lead by a husband and wife team, co-state captains Greg and Chris Keller, for the past three years. They joined in early 2006, a few months after the start of the national organization. According to them, the Patriot Guard only participates at the invitation of the families involved. When asked how families learn about Guard, they explained that their services are well known by military and veterans organizations as well as funeral directors and military casualty assistance officers who work closely with the families. They say Oregon has 2300 Patriot Rider members; many are Vietnam Vets who remember the insults and terrible treatment they were subjected to by elements of American society during that war.
Andrew Keller’s father, Jeff Keller, says “they are an amazing organization who genuinely care about their brothers and sisters and the families of fallen soldiers.” Dale Lembke, Matthew’s father, agrees and also strongly supports the organization.
Congress helped ease the protest issue by passing Public Law 109-228 – Respect for America’s Fallen Hero’s Act. It prohibits protests within 300 feet (91 m) of the entrance of any cemetery under control of the National Cemetery Administration, from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral. Signed on May 29, 2006, violations can result in fines up to $100,000 and up to one year in jail.
You can directly support the Patriot Guard by joining as I recently did on PatriotGuard.org — “Patriot Guard Riders stand for those who stood for us.” The website says Freedom isn’t Free but Patriot Guard Membership is. A recognized 501(c)3 organization, tax-deductible donations can also be made through this website.