Ride of respect: Patriot Guard Riders comfort the living, honor the dead

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Base personnel are taking their military appreciation to the streets -- on two wheels -- through the efforts of the Patriot Guard Riders. They are an organization of motorcyclists and non-riders, veterans and others, united by their appreciation of the military and the sacrifices they have made and continue to make.

Among the veterans riding with the Patriot Guard Riders is Dominick Gezzi, who retired after 23 years of service in the Air Force and now works at Gunter Annex as a combat ammunitions system functional analyst with Northrop-Grumman Information Systems. He has been a part of the Patriot Guard Riders for more than five years.

"The Patriot Guard Riders gives me a way to show my appreciation to the other branches of the service and to the servicemen and women that have served before me," he said. "It also allows me to continue to show how proud I am to have been in the military."

Doug Brown of the Maxwell Air Force Base Fire Emergency Service Flight became involved in the Patriot Guard Riders through his involvement in the Green Knights Motorcycle Club and has been a member for two years. One of his first missions was to ride in recognition of the Honor Flight, a program that sent World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II memorial.

"I thought that was a worthy cause, and I went," he said. "We're never short of events, and we're never short of riders to honor vets at those events."

The state captain, Paul "Penguin" Reynolds, noted that the group has about 1,800 members statewide who perform, on average, more than 300 missions a year.

Mr. Reynolds emphasized that the organization is not a motorcycle club. "We're just a group of patriots doing what's right," he said. "A lot of our group are Vietnam veterans" who were not treated with respect on their return home. "We vow, never again."

The organization's website states that the group originated in 2005 in Kansas and Missouri to both honor military members who gave their lives in the line of duty and in response to the activity of protestors in the area who were targeting the funerals of military members. The Patriot Guard Riders now cover all 50 states in a variety of ways: Homecomings and sendoffs for military members, charity rides, escorting and providing flag lines at funerals for military members and law enforcement and other ceremonies saluting veterans.

Although the Patriot Guard Riders attend funerals to escort the family and honor the war dead at the request and direction of the families, they also will serve an additional duty as needed. "If (protestors are) standing there protesting, our mission goes from escorting to shielding" family from protestors, Mr. Reynolds noted. A recent mission took the riders to Haleyville in northwest Alabama to help honor the memory of Senior Airman Mark Forester, who was killed in Afghanistan while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. "We've been in with the soldier's family since day one," Mr. Reynolds said. Despite the threat of protests, Airman Forester's funeral had a "huge turnout, no protestors," he said.

Mr. Gezzi has participated in about 30 missions. Among the missions that stood out in his memory: "I stood on the flag line last year during the Alabama State Fair to honor the Vietnam vets. It was a welcome home that they really should have gotten years ago," he said.

This year at the Alabama State Fair, the Patriot Guard Riders were part of a salute to Korean War veterans, said Mr. Reynolds, the third year they've taken part in a salute to veterans at the fair.

To Mr. Gezzi, the most touching aspect of being a Patriot Guard Rider is "seeing the joy on the faces of the family when they see us standing for someone we never met and feeling their loss."

No matter what the calendar or thermometer reads, Patriot Guard Riders do not hesitate to bestow honor and respect, said Mr. Reynolds. "We've done missions on Father's Day. That shows passion. ... Rain doesn't stop us. Cold doesn't stop us."

Mr. Reynolds said that non-motorcyclists also have a role to play with Patriot Guard Riders. Those who don't ride motorcycles can take part by "holding a flag in a flag line" or by taking much-needed items such as flags, water and coffee -- things that motorcycles cannot easily carry. Automobiles also ride behind the convoy of motorcycles to keep the traffic at bay. "Our cars are very important to us," he said.
The Patriot Guard Riders are supported by a number of patriotic and motorcycle organizations, such as the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Green Knights Motorcycle Club, and a host of others displayed on the Patriot Guard Riders national website.

"We have a very good reputation. ... We have very good people," said Mr. Reynolds. "The same people who sneer at motorcyclists when they see them on the street hug us when they see us at a funeral."

For more information on the Patriot Guard Riders, visit the Patriot Guard Riders website at http://www.patriotguard.org/.