Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My First Patriot Guard Rider Mission - Sept 2006


Someone once told me that one measure of a man’s character is his willingness to do something for someone who has no means of repaying him.  This insight was made evident to me many times over September 22nd and 23rd.   This was the weekend a hero was laid to rest.  On September 13th, 2006, PFC Jeff Shaffer was killed in action while serving his country with the United States Army in Iraq.  One measure of Jeff’s character was his willingness to enlist after 9-11, knowing he would surely be sent into combat.  Jeff answered the call and made the ultimate sacrifice.

I have seen news accounts of countless military funerals since the Iraq war began; most of the casualties being Soldiers and Marines.  Quite frankly, I never understood the use of the word “casualty” for the description of a fatality.  This is especially true when describing the death of a service member.  There is nothing casual about our nation losing a highly-trained soldier.  I imagine that to their family, the term is almost derogatory in its apparent lack of compassion.

So what makes this funeral different?  After all, I did not know PFC Shaffer or his parents.  A few weeks ago, I watched an interview with a member of a radical church organization whose “calling” was to protest the funerals of soldiers, citing their twisted interpretation of Biblical Scripture as their justification.  I was incensed not only by their nerve, but by the American media’s willingness to give them the attention they crave.  Americans often wonder how Islamic extremists can justify their actions through their religion, yet we have equally radical zealots in America acting in the name of their “faith” every day.  Dumbfounded as I listened to the spokesperson’s discourse, I could not help but wonder if these people comprehended the irony of their protesting; protesting the very people who died fighting to ensure their continued right to protest.

Fortunately, I had an unusual supply of patience that day.  It was either that, or I just could not find the TV remote control.  Following the inconsistent diatribe of the protester was an interview with a member of the Patriot Guard Riders.  The PGR are a national organization of volunteers - mostly motorcyclists and veterans - who when invited, attend the funeral services of fallen military members and place themselves with a cordon of American flags between the families and friends of the deceased and any protester or group of protesters.  Hearing of such a grass roots movement supporting those who fight for our freedom really spoke to my heart.  As a second generation Air Force veteran and the father of a third generation son now serving in the Air Force, the compulsion to support these guys was instantly very strong.

I searched the web for the Patriot Guard Riders and found their website (PatriotGuard.org) which boldly states “Freedom isn’t free, but membership [in the PGR] is”.  It was shortly after signing up and contacting the regional contact here in Texas that I learned of PFC Shaffer’s death and the planned mission to support his family.  Having read numerous written accounts and viewed photos from previously completed funerals – referred to as “missions” by the PGR, I thought I had an idea of what to expect should I participate in the Shaffer mission.  But as I read on, I learned that this mission was different; for Jeff Shaffer’s parents are themselves Patriot Guard Riders.  Living near a large Army installation, they have participated in numerous missions for their son’s compatriots.  Recently, they had ridden the mission for Jeff’s best friend killed in Iraq, and now they found themselves facing the ultimate heartbreak as the PGR came to ride for them.

The Shaffer mission was to be a three-part event.  First, the PGR were to accompany his body from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to the funeral home one hundred miles to the south.  Riders from all over Texas staged at the airport and in a two-by-two formation, escorted the funeral coach to PFC Shaffer’s viewing location at the funeral home in Waco.  Many riders selflessly rode the hundred-plus mile journey to DFW airport on a weekday, performed their escort mission down to Waco, and then rode back home again.  It seemed like a sacrifice until I considered the thousands of miles PFC Shaffer had just completed.

Riding the relatively clear freeway to from Dallas to Waco for the next part of the mission offered me plenty of time to reflect not only on the mission itself, but of my own military history, and of the service to his country my own son is now giving.  I served in the Air Force in the 1980’s, which was a pretty unremarkable time in American military history.  With peace breaking out all over the world, there were few publicized US military operations other than the Grenada rescue operation and the apprehending of General Manuel Noriega.  Having grown bored performing the “routine” Air Force electronic countermeasures job for which I had trained, I signed on to a special operations group that was part of a three-letter government organization, which had me taking many short trips in and out of central America into garden spots like Nicaragua and Honduras.  During those years, I witnessed first hand the deaths and/or disappearances of courageous American servicemen; family men like me, but who never returned home.  After I separated the service, I often reflected on the anguish, uncertainty, and lack of closure their families must feel - even to this day - wondering about the demise of their loved ones.  Surely the return of their son’s body and the subsequent funeral with full military honors would provide a measure of closure to PFC Shaffer’s family.  Furthermore, if my one additional anonymous face in the flag line could aid in that pursuit, then it would be worth every mile ridden and every tear I might shed.  The ride into Waco was uneventful, but as windy as I have ever ridden.  As I fought to keep the bike vertical, it occurred to me that despite all the wind, there was no sand storm in it and there were no bullets flying at me.  I settled into a 15 degree lean, grabbed a handful of throttle, and rode on.

The second part of the mission was to stand and provide a cordon of flags at the funeral home for PFC Shaffer’s viewing, which was staged at a local Harley dealership parking lot in Waco.  Riders and support vehicles arrived one after another and the details of our activities and the route to the funeral home were discussed.  While there, I met an Army retiree whose wife had just deployed to Iraq for the fourth time.  We discussed the Shaffer family briefly, but with his wife in the war zone, the topic seemed to change on its own.  I told him that this was my first mission and asked about the protocol.  His advice was to just follow the leaders.  Once the others started arriving, he thanked me for coming and gave me a Patriot Guard Riders lapel pin.  I thanked him, placed it on the old Air Force field hat I had brought with me, and feeling just a little more like I belonged, wore it proudly.

A small group of twenty or so, we rode to the funeral home and lined up on each side of the main entrance holding large American flags.  Our job there was to do as the Patriot Guard always does; Stand tall and silent.  Throughout the two hours we stood outside, family members and friends filed in and out of the building.  Many spoke to us and expressed their gratitude for our presence.  One by one, each of us made our way inside to sign the guest registry.  We stood down later that evening.  Part three of the mission would stage at the same parking lot at 0800 the next morning, giving me twelve more hours to reflect.

Saturday morning would bring gloomy, overcast skies with a threat of rain that had been forecast all week.  Still, the bikes rolled in as the minutes rolled by.  More and more bikes and riders filled the parking lot as the clouds filled the sky.  Some rode solo, others in groups and with passengers; many with large American flags and others with bright yellow PGR flags waving in the increasing wind.  Feeling more comfortable among them after last night’s time together at the funeral home, I mingled about introducing myself and shaking what seemed like hundreds of hands.

The Patriot Guard represents a real cross section of Americans: young and old, suave and smooth, rough and unpolished, the wealthy, and those barely getting by with hardly enough cash to purchase fuel for the miles yet to be ridden.  Dressed in the typical denim and leather associated with the biker crowd, many of us resembled the type of person that would cause most people to cross the street in order to avoid getting too close.  Despite our differences, everyone there shared a sincere respect for the families and a deep admiration of the hero for whom we were there to ride.  Many were US military veterans sporting vests with patches remembering their Vietnam era POWs and brethren.  Others were Persian Gulf and even current Iraq war vets. Most rode Harleys, but regardless of whether is was an American made cruiser or a metric sport bike, it was the cause that mattered, and today that cause was PFC Jeff Shaffer and his family.

Most of those in attendance had completed numerous missions before and were quickly recognized by their peers in the crowd.  Many wore miniaturized dog tags on their vests inscribed with “Mission Accomplished”; one for each ride completed with the PGR.  I could not help but notice that overshadowing the smiles, greetings, handshakes, and hugs  was a solemn camaraderie among men and women who, despite enjoying each others company, had seen each other too many times and far too recently.  Watching the ever-growing crowd, I wondered how such a large group manages itself.

The Patriot Guard Riders have a command structure of State and Regional Captains which are distinguished from the other members by their red caps embroidered with the PGR emblem.  Since most of the membership is ex-military, they simply follow the chain of command. Taking direction from people you truly respect is rarely an issue.  The red hats have earned the respect they receive from the membership.  The Captains maintain contact with the Deceased’s families to determine how the PGR can serve and to ensure the families’ wishes are respected.  They also coordinate the events with local law enforcement and the funeral directors.  This is important because a large crowd with the mission such as the Patriot Guard could easily be perceived as an intimidating vigilante force.  Waco law enforcement clearly embraced our presence and provided police escorts throughout the Waco portion of our route.

Around 9:00am, one of the red hats summoned everyone to a final mission briefing.  Details of the ride were discussed, as were the general rules and common courtesies for group riding for us first timers.  The briefing was concluded with a prayer led by a PGR member chaplain and we mounted up.

Stage three of the Shaffer mission was itself two parts.  We would ride to the church for the funeral service and then on to the cemetery for the internment ceremony.  As we lined up in rows of two bikes and slowly rolled into formation, I felt a degree of prideful anticipation for what we were about to do.  But after last night’s duty at the funeral home, I knew all too well that the mood - just as the skies above - would only grow more solemn.  When we pulled out of the parking lot onto the highway service road, the enormity of our crowd became apparent.  There were bikes ahead and behind me as far as I could see, which caused even more prideful swelling inside.

Our procession was led by Waco Police cruiser escorts as we made our way to the church some twenty miles away where the closed-casket service would be held.  We crossed over the interstate and settled into staggered positions at a reasonable but respectful pace.  We arrived at the church approximately thirty minutes later, greeted by dozens of people standing at the parking lot entrance with American flags.  The excitement and pride quickly subsided into a huge lump in my throat.  We filed slowly into the parking lot and parked our bikes in tight rows, leaving room for the other attendees’ cars.  Members who were not at the Friday viewing were invited to go into the church and sign the guest register.  Meanwhile, a red hat Captain was passing out large American flags while another directed us to our spots in the line that was forming in front of the church where the coach and family vehicles would pass.  A bell tolled in the distance making the mood significantly more solemn.


The Liberty Bell, a full-scale replica of the original, positioned between two large tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments is apparently a common site at PGR missions.  Its tone was deep and somber.  Its sustain was haunting.  The bell was rung manually by its caretaker on thirty second intervals.  If by chance your mind drifted from the significance of the proceedings at hand, you were given a reality check - every thirty seconds.  This was clearly going to be a battle to see which could hold out the longest; my eyes or the clouds above.

As the parking lot filled with mourners, we stood positioned in a line across the front of the church; our flags waving in the increasing wind.  The sky grew increasingly ominous, but none of us seemed to notice.  We did as we were asked.  We stood tall and silent.  Two young boys stood at the end of our line holding hand-made signs they had colored with crayons.  Although they were most likely unsure why they were there, they were proud of their artwork and seemed to enjoy standing with us.  The coach and family cars arrived, escorted by a twelve-rider Patriot Guard detail dispatched earlier from the Waco staging point.  As they drove slowly past us, the mood grew as solemn as the skies above as they slowed to a stop.  I was transfixed on the Army Honor Guard as they precisely removed the casket when cadence of the bell suddenly changed.  Five short rings echoed from a distance; the last of which seemed to sustain endlessly.  After the family and other attendees entered the church for the service, we stood down, returned the flags, and mounted up for the sixty mile journey to the cemetery.

As we departed the church, the roadsides along the route were cluttered with idling vehicles respectfully waiting for us to pass.  The internment service was to be held at a small private cemetery, the route to which would take us through several small towns.   Many of these had little more than a sign and a single main street.  Through every town we passed, people stood along the road; some holding flags, others with hands over their hearts.  Entire families stood silently together as we rode by.  We passed a local VFW post with dozens of people standing and saluting.  There were farmers with large American flags atop their tractors, Boy Scouts saluting in uniform, and numerous individuals who felt compelled to pay their respects.  Every rider was sincerely moved by the outpouring of support from people who, like us, did not even know PFC Shaffer.  Their presence was heartwarmingly indicative of the type of people who make up the core of this country; sincere, compassionate, and patriotic.

We arrived at the cemetery, parked our bikes, and took our positions. With flags in hand and standing shoulder-to-shoulder, we formed a wall of people around the awning and surrounding area where PFC Shaffer’s the family and friends gathered.  Once again, the familiar sound and cadence of the Liberty Bell rang out in the distance.  As before, the bell rang five times when the Honor Guard removed the casket.  In the distance, a lone bagpiper played Amazing Grace as the graveside ceremony began.  The eulogy was read and prayers were spoken as friends and family members cried and consoled each other.  The Army presented the family with PFC Shaffer’s Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals as the accompanying citations for each were read aloud.  The flag which adorned the casket was precisely folded and solemnly delivered to Shaffer’s mother. 

As the Honor Guard fired off its three-round volley, Taps was played, and the bagpipes began playing Amazing Grace again.  This time they were played from a greater distance with the piper walking away - which created an even more solemn, fading away effect.  At this point,  the skies won.  I could not hold back my tears.  The outpouring of emotion for a complete stranger from so many people was overwhelming to a degree that mere words cannot explain.  Witnessing first hand the pain and heartbreak of parents who raised up their son with a sense of duty and sacrifice was every bit as painful as the funerals of own my sister and of my father.

After the service, many family members moved down the flag line, embracing and thanking each of us for our service.  Our service!  I was awe struck by their composure and their compassion.  Having a grieving family member hug and thank me for my service at the funeral of their loved one was but one more demonstration of the kind of character Jeff took with him to Iraq.  Perhaps comforting those who came to comfort them was a start to the healing process for the family.  The funeral cars departed, but the family invited everyone to stay behind for barbecue in appreciation for our efforts.  To this day I still cannot get over their display of appreciation towards us when it was truly our honor for us to be there for them.

Although it was not my intention, I believe this mission served me as much as it did the family.  The long ride home afforded me plenty of time to reflect not just upon the mission itself, but on the underlying reasons which compelled my participation.  I thought of my son who had just completed Air Force boot camp and the risks he might face abroad as a Combat Controller.  I thought of the servicemen with whom I had worked in the field, but never came home.  As I rode on and mentally replayed the events of the last twenty four hours, I felt a slight sense of closure for those men.

Since the Shaffer mission, I have ridden over a hundred others and have become addicted to the commitment and respect the Patriot Guard demonstrates and to the camaraderie we feel.  I wear a red hat now and serve as a Ride Captain for the north Texas PGR.  Our role has expanded to include welcoming home Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and celebrating their heroism.  We also stand at the funerals of Vietnam and World War II veterans.

I honestly look forward to the day when the Patriot Guard is no longer needed.  I suspect; however, that that day is far away.  Until then, I will continue to cultivate that increasing sense of closure the next time and every time we are called.