In response to the foul picketing of the Westboro Baptist Church membership at military funerals, an effort to protect grieving families coalesced from Veterans groups, American Legions, Christian Biker groups, and individual motorcycle riders everywhere. Now there are genuine chapters known as the Patriot Guard. People ride their motorcycles to a funeral, and then stand with large American flags, forming a shield between the hateful signs of the WBC cult, and those attending the funeral. Sometimes, it has been necessary to run scores of Harley engines to drown out the unwanted chanting and shouting of the misguided Phelps clan.
Saturday, my daughter and I joined with over four hundred other motorcyclists to honor SSGT Jamie Jarboe, a 27 year old soldier who was shot by a sniper in Afghanistan. SSGT Jarboe was paralyzed from the chest down, and endured 110 surgeries in a year. He died last week at a Topeka hospital.
The Patriot Guard is well organized, peaceful, cooperative, and immensely respectful of the family's privacy. The logistics of safely moving so many motorcycles through town is one thing. There is also getting hundreds of flags on site and into the hands of those willing to stand with them. Every practical consideration is handled by someone, including bringing iced water to those standing with the flags.
I did not know what to expect Saturday. I think I assumed a group of angry radical, patriotic zealots, walking about with an arrogant attitude. Instead I found a group of humble Americans doing what Americans do best - taking care of one another. People were gentle and friendly with one another. The large number of military in attendance, from the Vietnam Vets to the young men and women of our current wars, helped moved the hundreds of people, bikes, and flags with flawless precision.
The entire event was healing - for the old Vietnam combat veterans right down to people like me, who only read about SSGT Jarboe. It was a beautiful spring morning. A breeze gently raised the flags in an uncanny synchronization, providing a beautiful, living tribute to the young soldier who fought valiantly at the behest of his country, and then fought valiantly to live, to remain with his wife and young family. The lanes of the cemetery were lined with flags. I have to say, it was a beautiful sight.
I stood with my flag and thought about the nature of war. Patriotism can be mighty dangerous. It is something I have attempted to avoid since I was old enough to understand its dark side. Oh, I dearly love my country and my countrymen - but it was full blown, blind patriotism that allowed George Bush to declare war in Iraq.
As I stood with my flag, I recalled each man I have personally known who went to war in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought of their families, their wives and children, their mothers and fathers. I do not know what the lessons of war are, not in the long arc of human history. We do not learn those lessons. Maybe it is that war serves as an agent of change, of evolution for civilization.
These are some of the men who come to mind as I stood with the flag:
Melvin Wertz - WWII
Charles Haynes - WWII
Dee Haynes - Korea
Leonard McKinney - WWII and Korea
Gary Wertz - Vietnam
Randall Haynes - Vietnam
Karl Hansen - Vietnam
Dennis Hansen - Vietnam
Rodney Hansen - Vietnam
Ken Lopez - Vietnam
Wade Arms - Iraq
Robert Clark - Iraq
And all those men and women I have not named, and all those men and women I do not know, and all the mothers and fathers and wives and sisters and children who wait for their loves ones to come home.
Post Script: The Patriot Guard attends funerals only at the request of the family.