Riders demand respect for fallen heroes

Loujane Johns
Members of the local Patriot Guard escorted the “The Wall” Memorial through Geneva last week.

It is hard to imagine that people would attend the solemn funeral for a serviceman killed in action to protest the war, but it has happened.  A special group, the Patriot Guard, has been organized to aid and shield the mourners from those who disrupt such a service.

The Patriot Guard came into being in August 2005, when members of the American Legion Riders Chapter #1366 in Kansas were appalled to learn of a group of protesters who were disrupting funeral services of veterans.  The group made it their mission to guard the families using motorcycles, law enforcement and veterans groups.  Since then the organization has spread to every state. 

In October 2005 the name Patriot Guard was established and a website started.  Within two weeks the website had 566,000 hits.

Locally, Tim Yetter is president of the American Legion Riders of Penn Yan.  Knowing of his interest in motorcycles, he said Dave Blauvelt gave him a pamphlet on the Legion Riders and told him “do what you can.”  Yetter sent post cards to everyone he thought might be interested.  The  local Riders now have 40 members.  Yetter said there are 42 American Legion Rider groups in New York State and 450 in the nation.

Over the years “bikers” have gotten a reputation as a rough, tough bunch of people.  But  not this group.  They have sponsored benefit rides for local organizations such as Happiness House. They planted a tree in Phelps in memory of a fallen veteran.  A scholarship is given for a two and a half day course at FLCC called, “Learn to Ride.”  Money has been raised for the Army Reserve Center at Christmas time and for Keuka Comfort Care. They are good-hearted people, who just happen to ride motorcycles.

On May 20 the local organization joined hundreds of other bikers in escorting  “The Wall” from the Thruway in Canandaigua to Seneca Lake State Park. The 3/4 scale replica of The Wall in Washington, D.C. is dedicated to Vietnam Veterans and is 240 feet long and eight feet high.  It contains the names of 58,000 veterans who died or are missing in Vietnam. 

The motorcyclists, many with bikes decorated with American and Patriot Guard flags, followed the tractor trailer truck containing the wall along Routes 5&20, assuring a solemn, uninterrupted journey. 

Many members of the local chapter of Legion Riders are also members of the Patriot Guard. Those wishing to participate are not required to be veterans.  Yetter said the only requirement is “respect.” 

The Patriot Guard shields a mourning family and friends from interruption by protesters. If there is noisy protest, engines are revved up on the bikes to drown the sound. Outside the funeral home members stand in close ranks holding 3x5 foot American flags and are told to keep their backs to the protesters or “U.G.’s “ (uninvited guests). Confrontations with the agitators are avoided at all costs. At the cemetery the media is politely asked to take pictures from a distance.

The only dress code is for safety and comfort, Yetter said.  Different colored caps are sometimes worn by the captains to designate their particular group.  He said certain ethnic groups may request traditions carried out. Their wishes are granted with respect. 

The Patriot Guard learns of “missions” posted daily on the national website.  They can chose to join any mission.  Personally, Yetter has been on 19 “missions.” Twice he has attended services in Watertown.

He said if protesters learn the Patriot Guards are coming, they are starting to stay away. A funeral in Owego was the biggest Yetter has seen. Over 150 bikes gathered there in honor of a Marine who was killed in Iraq.

Family members can request the Patriot Guard to attend a funeral for a fallen hero of any conflict, or law enforcement officer or firefighter.  The local group recently held vigil at Weldon’s Funeral Home for Bob Conley, a veteran and motorcycle enthusiast.  They may also be called on for send-offs or welcome homes for troops.

On the website members are shown visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals.  Yetter (nicknamed Road King I) said a large rally is scheduled to be held in Old Forge this summer. Riders will sign a Patriot Guard flag to be sent to Iraq. For more information on the ALR and Patriot Guard, Yetter can be reached at 315-730-1244.  He says it doesn’t matter if you are a “hawk” or a “dove,” you just need to show respect.

“The guard means a lot to the family that has lost a son or daughter in combat overseas. A 3x5 American Flag and your time is all that is needed to join,” he says.

Members of the American Legion Riders gathered at a recent funeral in respect for for a veteran who had passed.