Sunday, August 19, 2012

I overheard someone else say it, but I couldn't say it better.

"It's the hardest, best thing I've ever done."

The man's comment was in response to another person's expression of appreciation for his Patriot Guard mission. We were on our first mission. It won't be our last.

We've planned to join, procrastinated, and finally got our packet earlier this month. Desultorily I've looked at the mission forum, but nothing was convenient.

Patriot Guard is not about convenience.

It's about mission.

It's about dedication.

It's about paying homage to veterans. To heroes.

It's about America.

Yesterday a naval corpsman was being laid to rest in a town not from our city. The Patriot Guard were asked to escort him to his final resting place. And late the afternoon before the service, it was said that an infamous cult planned to protest the funeral.

We weren't planning anything else but chores and relaxation. So we decided to make this our first mission.

The day was hot and threatened storms. We geared up, stuck some water bottles in a cooler with an ice pack and headed out. Left early so we could have a nice lunch. We hit a little rain, nothing bad. Had our lunch and headed to the church where the funeral would be held.

At every major crossroads, bikes pulled in ahead or behind us. When we turned from the courthouse onto Main Street, we could see the turn to the church about a mile down the road. It was solid with bikes, law enforcement vehicles and civilian pickups ... even a few cars (this is Texas!). Flags lined the road from the courthouse to the church.

We were directed into a double-line along the curb, then asked to move across the street to form another double line. A large firetruck sat in the middle of the road on which we gathered, ladder up, Navy flag flying. Diesel engine rumbling. Various firefighters and law enforcement officers stood around, talking quietly.

Bikes kept arriving. We sought some shade, drank water. More bikes arrived. People were walking through the crowd. Many carried flags. Some dressed for the services. Some dressed to stand outside and show their respect. Almost all carried a cameras or used a cell phone to record the events.

Military personnel trickled through the crowd. Bright white navy uniforms. Army BDUs. Marine sported dress blues. All crowd members were friendly. All were somber. All were determined. Only a few showed anger at the thought of the protesters showing up. Few, if any, really believed they would. Again and again, people thanked bikers for coming. Bikers thanked law enforcement for their service. People offered water to strangers. Townspeople greeted one another.

As we obediently gathered for the safety meeting it struck me as incongruous: for so long the public perception has been that bikers are an anachronistic bunch. Yet here were well more than a hundred gathered, quietly and obediently going where pointed, standing in the sun for a military-style no-punches-held briefing that was anything but brief. Thorough, checklisted and reiterated yes. Brief, no.

Our instructions:
  • Our Purpose: Show respect.
  • Be safe.
  • Cell phones off.
  • All motors to start at one time.
  • Follow the Ride Captains in maroon.
  • No revving throttles.
  • Be flexible .. the order of service often changes.
  • Salute or stand with hand over heart when the casket is being moved into the church and into the hearse.
  • Flag Line: Large American flags were spaced around the church. At least one Patriot Guard Rider was to stand at each flag. Just stand. Don't talk. Don't fidget. No smoking. No drinking. Show respect. Start a half hour before service start is scheduled, until the service begins.
  • Motorcade Escort: The County Sheriff's vehicle will lead. Patriot Guard Riders will fall in behind the lead vehicles, and the hearse will follow. Two tailgunners will bring up the rear.
  • Ride in staggered double formation.
  • Be flexible.
  • Show respect.
  • Be safe.
Dismissed, we moved to a flag and stood the flag line. Thirty minutes in the Texas sun. A man dressed like a funeral director asked us to go in and sign the guest book, at the family's request. A long double line snaked to the guest books. The air conditioning felt so good. We wrote our names, added PGR and returned to our stations. People asked if they could take our pictures. People shook our hands and thanked us for coming. The sweat rolling down my cheeks masked the tears I couldn't hold back. I am blessed. My son came home .. all three times.

How could we do less?

Thunder began rumbling. A few flashes of lightining caused heads to rotate.

Still, people stood, quietly talking, or just standing. A few showed signs expressing love and patriotism.

A hush fell over the crowd. I've read that phrase so many times. Now I've felt it.

Backs straightened. Hands removed hats. Salutes were given. Hands covered hearts. All eyes faced the same direction. The casket made it slow journey from church to hearse.

The sheriff's vehicle began to move.

Ride Captains circled their hands and 175 motorcycles rumbled into life. The Ride Captain gave a few directions to latecomers, weaving their iron horses into the line.

Suddenly, the hearse cut the line.

We were flexible. Patriot Guard Riders in front and Patriot Guard Riders in back. Easy.

Except the lump in my throat, pride in my heart and tears in my eyes made it hard to see.

But I could see. I could see hundreds of people standing in the Texas heat to show respect to a hero who had volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, to a family whose son gave the ultimate sacrifice.

They lined the street as motorcycles filled the street.

They waved flags, or stood quietly with hand over heart.

Shopkeepers stepped outside and placed closed signs on their doors.

Families got out of cars and stood outside.

The rain started as the motorcade turned the corner. A few, slow sprinkles to show us God cries, too.

All along the 6.5 mile route to the cemetery, people stood. A small boy waved a flag from a pedestal in his driveway.

The storm hit. People stayed where they were, ignoring the rain, standing their ground. This is America. We honor our heroes. One small group stood together by a building. A young boy cried loudly in the rain, not understanding why his mother didn't protect him from the wet. Not understanding what he witnessed.

There were hundreds of witnessess that day. Cars lined the highway. Few failed to stop. Most of them were empty, their passengers standing at attention outside, acknowledging, Remembering. Respecting.

At the cemetery, the Patriot Guard Riders were directed into a street loop. We parked four abreast and walked slowly, silently to encircle the service. Showing respect. The rain stopped. Guns barked: the 21-gun salute. The Naval personnel left the service area in measured steps, Naval Whites gleaming. As the service continued, the rain came again, strong, heavy drops that became a torrent. Mud splashed. Just before the end of the service, the rain ceased for a time.

We slipped away, to furl our five flags, hoping to have them put away so other bikers wouldn't be delayed.

Not that any would have complained.

As we loaded the last flag and pulled out our rain gear, the others returned. Hands were shaken, nods given, and we departed one by one, going our separate ways, but united by a purpose.


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