Patriot Guard honors fallen soldiers at funerals

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When Bud Roberts, of Upper St. Clair, turned on the evening news in February 2006, what he saw would change the direction of his life.

Mr. Roberts watched a report about protesters at a funeral for a member of the armed forces killed in action in Iraq. A four-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Mr. Roberts was deeply offended by the protesters' presence at the funeral, and was motivated to act.

Mr. Roberts, 59, a sales manager for Club Car Inc., which manufactures golf cars, also owns two Harley Davidson motorcycles. He joined the Patriot Guard Riders, a patriotic biking group that attends military funerals to shield grieving family members from protesters.

He now estimates that he has attended 66 military funerals, a majority of which have been in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. About 55 of the funerals, he said, have been for soldiers killed in action. He has encountered protesters about a dozen times. Mr. Roberts estimates that in just one year he put more than 9,000 miles on his motorcycle attending funerals and patriotic events with the PGR.

"Mr. Roberts puts his heart and soul into this effort," said Barry Bioni, of Cecil, a Vietnam veteran and an assistant state captain for the PGR.

In September 2007, Mr. Roberts took his involvement with the PGR to a new level when he volunteered to serve as the Pennsylvania state captain, meaning that he is in charge of the group's activities within the state.

The Patriot Guard Riders got its start in Kansas in 2005 with the American Legion Riders, a motorcycle group composed of bike-riding members from the American Legion, an organization of veterans who served in wartime. The riders organized to counteract protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church, or WBC, of Topeka, Kan.

The WBC, which believes that God is killing soldiers to punish America for condoning homosexuality, is led by the Rev. Fred Phelps. Church membership consists almost entirely of members of the Phelps family. The church is not affiliated with the mainstream Baptist church.

The church lists on its Web site military funerals at which it plans to protest. Church members arrive at funerals, carrying placards that carry messages like "God blew up the troops."

The efforts by the American Legion Riders to shield grieving family members from protesters quickly grew, and a separate group, Patriot Guard Riders, was formed in October 2005. Today, the PGR has chapters in all 50 states.

The PGR has a twofold mission: to attend veterans' funerals to show respect for America's fallen heroes and their families, and also to provide a nonviolent barrier between protesters and family members at military funerals.

The group requires its members to be nonviolent, nonconfrontational and show total respect, Mr. Roberts said. The group is not political, and does not take a stance for or against military actions, such as the war in Iraq.

Mr. Roberts estimates there are 2,300 members in the state and more than 120,000 nationwide. About 85 percent of the members in Pennsylvania are veterans, he said, many having served in the Vietnam War, and most are men.

While the group is open to all motorists, most members ride motorcycles. Members come from all walks of life, and membership is free.

PGR members rely heavily on communication through their Web site to coordinate activities.

The national group keeps a close watch on the list of war casualties, released by the Department of Defense. Once the PGR hears of a death of a member of the armed forces, the organization lists information on a "watch list" on its Web site.

The group will not attend a funeral unless it is invited by the next-of-kin of the deceased. Using contacts in the military, church or funeral home, the group contacts the family to ask if it would like the Patriot Guard Riders to attend the funeral.

Occasionally family members express hesitation at having the group attend.

"They're afraid of us," Mr. Roberts said. "They think we're just a group of bikers."

But once the group and its mission are explained to the family, he said, families usually welcome the group's presence.

After receiving an invitation from the family, the funeral moves to a "confirmed mission" status on the Web site, which provides details for the funeral, including time and location. With nicknames like Road Dog, Desert Doc, Shooter and Dark Horse, members track upcoming missions in their area, and post condolences to the family.

Wearing black leather, jeans and triangle-shaped patches with the PGR logo, guard members arrive at the church or funeral home at least an hour in advance of the family, under the direction of a ride captain, who wears a maroon baseball cap. They then hold a briefing to review the details of the funeral, and to remind members of the PGR rules, which include no cell phones and no eating.

By standing side-by-side, at attention, and holding 3-foot-by-5-foot American flags, the members form a corridor leading to the entrance of the church or funeral home. The family members walk through the corridor to the memorial services, followed by the flag-draped coffin.

Visitors at funeral services frequently stop to thank the guard members for their service.

If the family requests it, the Patriot Guard Riders offer a six-bike escort for the hearse and family members as they drive to the church or worship site. They will also attend the interment, if asked.

The Patriot Guard Riders present the next-of-kin with a plaque, expressing their grief and appreciation for the deceased's service. PGR members traditionally do not enter the place of worship to attend memorial services.

On average, a dozen or more members attend local funerals, some driving several hours.

"We're a pretty strong group in Western Pennsylvania," said Jay Goodman, of Finleyville, a PGR member and retired firefighter.

Even after attending so many military funerals, said Mr. Roberts, they are still very emotional events.

"It is always very difficult to see a flag-draped coffin," he said.

When asked why motorcyclists, in particular, organized to counteract protesters, Mr. Roberts said, "Many people in our society today are patriotic, but they're afraid to show it. Motorcyclists are different. They're not afraid to show their patriotism."

Federal and state laws have been passed in an effort to curtail the protests of groups like the WBC. These laws seek to limit the time and location of protests.

Under the Pennsylvania law, adopted in 2006, a person cannot engage in demonstrations within 500 feet of any location being used for a commemorative service. These restrictions apply one hour prior to, during and after the commemorative service.

The WBC, however, has challenged similar statutes in the states of Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri, alleging constitutional violations. At least in part, courts have found in favor of the WBC in each of these states, finding that the statutes are overly broad and run afoul of constitutional rights of free speech.

Larry Frankel, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union for Pennsylvania, said that Pennsylvania's law would also likely not withstand a constitutional challenge.

"The law is overbroad," he said. Because the law limits multiple forms of speech like signs and pamphlets, he said, and does not require intent, the law applies to activities beyond the intended scope of the legislation. Someone living near a church where memorial services are held, for example, could arguably violate the statute by putting a campaign sign in his yard, he said.

With the protesters farther from the memorial services, Mr. Roberts said, the Patriot Guard Riders still serve the purpose of creating a visual barrier between protesters and grieving family members.

"We have had a successful mission if the family members never see one protester," he said.

While legislative restrictions have been helpful to the PGR's efforts, Mr. Roberts said, the group's mission remains vital, and he sees their efforts expanding in future years.

"Hopefully the day will come when there won't be any more casualties," said Mr. Roberts.

Even so, he expects the Patriot Guard Riders to continue; with increased funding, he hopes the group can be an active military support group for veterans and their families.

Mr. Roberts plans to organize the Pennsylvania PGR into a nonprofit entity. The national organization is already a nonprofit entity, he said, but he would like the state organization to be more formally organized.

For Mr. Roberts, involvement with the Patriot Guard Riders has been life-changing. A self-described type-A personality, he said, "I'm much more patient now. I've learned that most of my daily concerns are insignificant."

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Erin Gibson Allen is a freelance writer.


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