The air smells of exhaust, leather and morning coffee. Motorcycles lined in six straight rows cover the parking lot at the Gateway to the West Harley-Davidson store in St. Louis. Dozens of men and a handful of women gather in small groups, socializing and trying to keep warm. The riders come from all over the state and have different backgrounds. But they are all there for the same reason: to show respect to a man they have never met.
Cpl. Russell Makowski, 23, of Union, died on Sept. 14 in Taji, Iraq, from an improvised explosive device. The Patriot Guard Riders were there with Makowski’s family and friends to honor the soldier and show their admiration for his sacrifice. These men and women dedicated their day to honor a stranger. Some of them gave up a day of work; some traveled more than 100 miles. The group of riders is eclectic. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars mix with other riders who weren’t alive during the veterans’ times of service.
Some of the riders look gruff, with long hair and sun-worn skin. But they are all compassionate and sincere in their proclaimed duty to honor fallen soldiers.
“You’ve gotta look at this as a celebration,” Mike “Smackwater” Gibbs, of Hillsboro, said. “This young man paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country. He cared enough to protect the citizens of this country to give up his life. He should be celebrated, and that is why we are here.”
Gibbs is serving in his own way. He is one of more than 63,000 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization formed in 2005.
The Patriot Guard’s mission is to honor fallen soldiers and surviving family and friends, as well as to provide a shield from protesters at funerals. The Patriot Guard formed after members of the Westboro Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with any known Baptist conventions or associations, began protesting at military funerals. Members of the church are better known for their leader, Pastor Fred Phelps, and his anti-homosexual protests.
Each state has its own Patriot Guard chapter led by a state captain. The Missouri chapter has more than 1,650 members. Membership is voluntary and open to anyone. Most of the members ride motorcycles, but it is not a requirement.
“We welcome anyone and everyone who believes in our cause,” Gibbs said.
Membership in the Missouri chapter continues to grow, and there are new people wanting to join at almost every mission, said Bill “Whirlwind” Richart, Missouri’s state captain. The Patriot Guard does not require members to pay fees or attend meetings.
“We believe everyone is a PGR — they just don’t know it yet,” Richart said. “If you do one ride with us, you will be hooked and it will run through your blood.”
Westboro Baptist Church was established in 1955 by Phelps in Topeka, Kan. The church has 70 members and has attended 18 soldiers’ funerals in Missouri since August 2005, carrying posters with anti-homosexual phrases like, “God hates fags.” The church believes homosexuality is the downfall of America.
Church members have shown up in several states at funerals for U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. Shirley Phelps-Roper, member of and attorney for Westboro Church, said God created the Iraq war as a mechanism to punish and destroy the nation.
The Patriot Guard tries to have riders present at every soldier’s funeral and recently started attending funeral services for any war veteran. However, riders only attend the funerals when the family requests them or approves of their presence.
“It used to be more often than not we would call the family up and ask if it was OK for us to come,” Richart said. “Now, more often, the family contacts us and asks us to attend.”
Prospective missions are announced on the Patriot Guard’s Web site, along with directions and background information on the soldier whose funeral the group will attend. Some of the missions come up with little notice, but the group does its best to have members present.
As the sun becomes brighter and the highway starts to come alive with the sound of morning traffic, the riders gather around picnic tables to go over the day’s instructions.
Monty Schrunk, the St. Louis-area ride coordinator, stands on top of a table and thanks everyone for coming. When he asks who is there for the first time, 13 hands out of the 80 riders shoot up. Someone in the crowd yells, “It won’t be your last!”
Schrunk reads a short newspaper article about Makowski and then goes over safety instructions. He tells the riders how to line up outside the funeral home and the order of the procession, then reviews rules for the flag line: keep conversations discreet, turn cell phones to the silent position and leave the line to smoke, eat or answer a phone call.
The riders are also told how to properly salute the casket and the family: stand at attention for family members, drop flags to 45 degrees when the casket approaches.
Questions about Westboro Baptist Church come up because the group listed the funeral as one they planned to protest. The instruction on how to deal with the protesters was simple: ignore them.
There have been several occasions where members of the Westboro Church and Patriot Guard Riders are both in attendance at a funeral. One of the responsibilities of the Patriot Guard Riders is to shield family members from protesters. If a protester or group of protesters start to chant or make loud noises, the riders rev up their engines or play the radio to drown out the cries.
Phelps-Roper said members of the Patriot Guard are only at the funerals because of her church’s protests. “They are not ignoring us, and furthermore, they will be on the other side of a 500-foot opening and they will come all the way across in big numbers and try to get with us and contend with us.”
Schrunk said the riders’ tactics are simple.
“We turn our backs to them so they can stare at the American flags on our backs,” he said. “We stand in front of them so the family can’t see them. They are not important and not worth wasting time on.”
A little before 9 a.m., the riders begin lining up in formation. The sound of about 80 motorcycles roaring to life can shake a person to the core. “It announces to the world that a hero is here,” Gibbs said.
In its past legislative session, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law banning protest activities an hour before and after a funeral service. The law, sponsored by state Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, was passed in response to members of Westboro Church protesting at military funerals. The law contained an emergency clause that made it take effect in February.
The law reads, “It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in picketing or other protest activities in front of or about any church, cemetery, or funeral establishment ... within one hour prior to the commencement of any funeral, and until one hour following cessation of any funeral.”
Westboro Church filed a lawsuit against the state claiming the words “for” and “about” were unconstitutionally vague, Phelps-Roper said. “The United States Supreme Court says that’s all good, but you have got to interpret what that means, and each person doesn’t get to make their own interpretation. We are going to tell you what it means. It means directly in front of.”
Phelps-Roper said she thinks the law was passed directly to limit her group’s speech. “You have to wonder if any of those legislators ever read the First Amendment,” she said. “The reason we must challenge this law, and have challenged it, is because when the day comes that they prevent us from putting the words in the air, then that’s a problem.”
Other states have proposed similar legislation, including Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Indiana and Vermont. A federal regulation signed by President Bush on Memorial Day restricts protests at any cemetery under the control of the National Cemetery Administration or at Arlington National Cemetery.
In the past, the Supreme Court has upheld various restrictions on speech, including a 36-foot buffer zone around entrances and driveways to health care facilities, a 15-foot buffer around health care clinics and restrictions on “targeted” picketing in front of any residence.
Four St. Louis County police officers turn into the parking lot and wait to lead the riders to the funeral home down the street. The bikes ride two by two, the large U.S. flags attached to each one creating a wave of red, white and blue. A white pickup truck with a banner that reads: “All gave some, some gave all,” brings up the rear.
As the group turns into the funeral home parking lot, the faces of grieving family and friends standing outside the funeral home light up a little. The bikers dismount, pull the flags off their bikes and begin to line the driveway of the funeral home.
When the service begins, members of the Patriot Guard grab water and shed their leather jackets. Members talk lightly among themselves and Schrunk calls everyone together for another quick briefing on the procession to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. The service is shorter than expected, and halfway through the briefing, the door to the funeral home opens to the sound of bagpipes. The riders disperse, grab their flags and once again take up their positions along the driveway.
As mourners begin to leave the funeral home to the strains of “Amazing Grace,” tears trickle down some of the riders’ faces. When the casket comes into view, riders with military experience salute. After the casket is loaded into the hearse, the riders return their flags to their motorcycles and start their engines. Three motorcycles ride in front in a missing man formation, an aviation tradition that leaves a spot vacant for the person being honored. Two bikes follow the hearse and the rest of the guard rides behind the family.
Deb Sevier, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders since June, is among the approximately 80 motorcyclists who came that Wednesday morning.
“We stand in solidarity. It doesn’t matter that we don’t personally know him — that just doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this family knows that people know and care about the reasons their son died,” Sevier said.
Some cite the poor reception for Vietnam veterans as a reason they joined the Patriot Guard.
Cliff Hall said he joined the group because of anger over the Westboro protesters.
“When I discovered these men and women, I realized there are still a lot of patriotic people,” he said. Hall has put about 30,000 miles on his motorcycle since joining the Patriot Guard in March.
Reed Smith, referred to as “Dragon Wagon,” has two sons serving overseas. He remembers the Vietnam era, and pauses a moment before he talks about how returning soldiers were treated.
“They were booed, spit on and even cursed,” Smith said. “We can’t let that happen again. These men are either coming home as heroes or they are coming home paying the ultimate sacrifice — and either way we will be there showing our appreciation.”
Police officers stopping traffic to allow the procession through the city salute as Makowski’s body passes. Once the procession arrives at the cemetery 10 miles away, the riders direct everyone to the burial site. As the casket is carried by six Marines, the riders line up on one side of the family — each holding an American flag with the name of a Sept. 11 victim or fallen soldier taped to the flag’s base.
“It is just another way to remember our heroes,” Gibbs said.
The sun glares as taps echoes through the cemetery. The riders stand at attention with the American flag at their side. They watch six pairs of crisp white gloves meticulously and reverently fold the flag that was draped over the coffin. And then the presentation of the flag to the family — an enduring image. The men and women of the Patriot Guard have been through this before. For the majority of the riders, this isn’t their first mission, but the drama and sorrow of each mission takes its toll on the members. The men and women of the Patriot Guard have to return to their jobs and family when they go home, and sometimes it gets difficult to put the event behind them.
“We look at each other as family, and we support each other on those missions that are particularly hard,” Sevier said.
Jim Diekmann, better known as “Preacher Jim” has been a member of the Patriot Guard since February. He’s ridden at 20 funerals, logging 15,000 miles on his Victory TC motorcycle.
Diekmann said the organization is helping to heal Vietnam veterans. “When they came back they were showed no honor. They were spit on and cursed and called ‘baby killers’ — that is no way to welcome back an American soldier.”
Preacher Jim has two grandsons in the military, and they are always in the back of his mind when he attends a service. Sometimes, family and friends thank the riders for coming. Other times, it’s too difficult.
“But that’s OK,” Preacher Jim said. “We aren’t there for the attention. We are there to show respect.”
The American flag presented to Dana Lamberson by the Patriot Guard Riders sits in her curio cabinet along with other mementos honoring her husband. Sgt. 1st Class Randy Lamberson was killed in Iraq on April 10 when an improvised explosive device struck his Humvee. For Dana, the riders provided solace in her time of mourning.
“It is sad that I lost my husband, and my children have lost their father, but we were just like ‘wow — all these people that we don’t even know came all this way from many corners of the United States just to be here for Rand’s funeral and to protect our right to be patriotic,’” Lamberson said.
The attitude the riders maintained throughout her husband’s funeral was important to Dana Lamberson. “They are silent in a way that they’re not overbearing. They are not pushy. They are just there to lead the body of my soldier, our fallen American hero, to his grave and they escorted him there eloquently and with profound respect.”
When Dana Lamberson started planning her husband’s funeral, she knew she wanted the Patriot Guard to attend. She had first experienced the riders when she attended another military funeral.
“I contacted the powers that be here and let them know I wanted the Patriot Guard,” she said. “When it became my turn to have to go through this, I was thankful and found solace in the fact that the PGR was there doing the opposite of the protesters — acting as a barrier to protect the family.”
On Memorial Day, Dana visited her husband’s grave and made an unexpected discovery: a note from a member of the Patriot Guard telling her family that the riders’ thoughts and prayers are with them.