COLUMBIA — Ask any member of the Patriot Guard Riders why they do what they do, and you’ll get the same answer: Respect.
The patches on their leather vests bear images of the American flag as well as the names of the various clubs they ride with, including the American Legion Riders, Honor Flight Riders, Combat Veterans and, of course, the Patriot Guard Riders.
JOINING THE PATRIOT GUARD RIDERS
Membership is free for anyone interested in riding or providing volunteer help to the central Missouri Patriot Guard Riders. To sign up, provide your contact details on the Patriot Guard website.
Ownership, or being able to ride, a motorcycle, isn’t required and participation in any mission is voluntary. Veteran status or affiliation isn’t necessary to join.
There are about 5,000 men and women who volunteer in Central Missouri with the Patriot Guard, and 350 in Columbia alone, Reed Hickam, senior ride captain for the central Missouri group, said. The number continues to increase, he said.
While affiliation with the military isn’t a requirement, he estimated that about 75 percent of the riders have served in the armed forces, and the rest are connected in some way.
“My dad served, I served, my father-in-law served,” Hickam said. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for our soldiers.”
The Westboro Baptist Church, which has become known for protesting and hate speech at the funerals of soldiers, was the impetus for starting the Patriot Guard in 2005, but that's no longer the focus.
“A lot of people think that’s what we’re here for, to counter-protest that group out of Kansas, but we’re not,” he said. “There’s a lot of things the Patriot Guard does that folks don’t know about.”
The main mission of the Patriot Guard is attending the funerals of American heroes. They also welcome opportunities to honor active duty and veteran soldiers, as well as first responders – fire, police and emergency medical personnel.
The only thing they need is an invitation.
“If the family asks us, there’s nothing that we won’t try and do,” he said.
When attending funerals as invited guests of the family, Hickam said the presence of the Patriot Guard Riders serves two purposes – allowing the riders to pay respect to fallen soldiers and shielding the family from "any outside interruptions.”
“We want to give them their time and their peace for them to pay their respect to their family member they just lost,” Hickam said.
While planning their missions, ride captains also talk with the families to determine how they can best honor the memory and service of their loved ones.
“We try to know that individual and try to take something back with us so that the person will always be remembered,” Hickam said. “We get very close to the families.”
For David and Rhonda Fingar, having the Patriot Guard participate in honoring the service and sacrifice of their youngest son, U.S. Army Specialist Jason Fingar, was an emotional and meaningful experience.
Fingar was killed while serving in Durai, Afghanistan on May 22, 2010, when his military vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb.
“They’re bikers, but they’re also most of them veterans who were there to say thank you, to show honor for him,” David Fingar said. “They weren’t just there when he got here, they were there at the funeral. It was really touching. It caused both my wife and I to cry.”
But the support from the Patriot Guard members didn’t stop after the funeral service.
“They still are in contact with us, so it wasn’t just for that brief time," David Fingar said. "It goes on.”
While the majority of invitations are from the families of soldiers, the Patriot Guard also uses its network to give “help on the home front,” Hickam said. Whenever they find out about a need in the veteran community, he said, the riders work together to fill it.
Hickam recalled a phone call from a veteran who was having an issue with his water heater. A group of volunteers visited him and figured out he needed a new one. They pitched in, bought it and installed it at no cost to him.
“A couple of the members were plumbers, and they just did it on their time,” Hickam said.
Another instance involved a veteran's wheelchair ramp that was falling apart. A group of Patriot Guard Riders went to his house and built him a new one for free, Hickam said.
“We do a lot of different things,” he said. “We don’t ask for money or donations. People just hand us money. We put it into an account and use it for whenever a veteran needs help. There’s enough people in the Patriot Guard now that we can get things done.”
The group also does deployment and welcome home missions for military units as well as individuals leaving and returning from overseas, Hickam said.
In addition to all of this, the group organizes the hundreds of riders who escort World War II and Vietnam War veterans returning from Central Missouri Honor Flight trips to Washington, D.C, to see their respective memorials.
That all started with a phone call Hickam received from Patriot Guard member Jeff Sapp in May 2009, asking if the riders could escort his grandfather home from his Honor Flight.
“I got to thinking, this is a group of World War II veterans that probably weren’t welcomed home properly the first time,” Sapp said. “Can we welcome them home and escort them home this time?”
Five riders answered the email request to join the night ride.
Sapp laughed as he remembered the response of many of the veterans from the flight to the riders: “The President had a motorcycle escort today, and he only had two motorcycles. We had five!”
“It made a lot of them feel really special,” he said.
As word about the rides spread through Facebook, shared photos and word of mouth, the number of riders grew, and the group adopted the name “Honor Flight Riders.” For the Honor Flight’s most recent trip on Nov. 1, 248 riders escorted the veterans home.
For Hickam, being part of the Patriot Guard and connecting people on big and small projects that honor and support veterans, troops and their families is what being an American is all about – doing the right thing.
“It’s an awesome feeling when you see what you can do for these people,” Hickam said. “They deserve it.”