WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Supreme Court contemplates whether protestors at military funerals are protected under First Amendment free-speech rights, a motorcycle group that travels the country attending those funerals as a show of support and respect rides on, undeterred by the political fray.
About 200,000 members of the Patriot Guard Riders attend military funerals to honor those who died for or served their country and to support their grieving families, Bill Richart, national president of the group’s board of directors, told American Forces Press Service. They also escort the bodies of fallen servicemembers as they arrive from Dover Air Force Base, Del., for burial in their hometowns across America.
The riders take part in these events only at the family’s request, Richart said, and regardless of whether protestors are expected.
“What we do is never about the protestors,” he said. “We are not a counterprotest group. We don’t go anywhere because of them, and we don’t not go anywhere because they are not there. … It’s about being there for the families, recognizing their loss and ensuring they know that people care.”
Richart emphasized that the riders have no political agenda and take no official position on the pending Supreme Court decision.
In that case, Albert Snyder, father of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in 2006, sued the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., for emotional distress after church members demonstrated and carried offensive signs at his son’s funeral in Westminster, Md.
A lower court ruled in Snyder’s favor. However, the church appealed the decision, arguing to the Supreme Court earlier this month that the protests are protected speech under the First Amendment.
As the issue plays out in the courts, the Patriot Guard Riders continue their missions around the country.
On Oct. 26, about 50 Patriot Guard Riders led a procession escorting Brenda Pallares as she returned home to Ontario, Calif., after the body of her son, Army Spc. Ronnie Pallares, arrived at Dover from Afghanistan.
Pallares, who would have turned 20 yesterday, was killed Oct. 23 in Ghazni, Afghanistan, when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 27th Engineer Battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Earlier this week, about 100 riders gathered in Waynesboro, Miss., for the funeral of 30-year-old Army Sgt. Eric Newman. Newman, who served with the 1st Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade at Fort Bragg, died following an Oct. 14 IED attack in Akatzai Kalay, Afghanistan.
On Oct. 23, another Patriot Guard Riders group joined friends and family of 22-year-old Marine Corps Cpl. Justin J. Cain to carry Cain’s casket from a funeral home in Manitowoc, Wis., to the local high school, where mourners bid their final goodbyes.
Cain, assigned to 1st Marine Division’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, at Camp Pendleton, Calif., was among four Marines killed Oct. 13 while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
The Patriot Guard Riders paid tribute last week to another Marine killed in that attack, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Joseph Rodewald. The riders, with American flags streaming from their motorcycles, waited with friends and family members at the airport in Eugene, Oregon, as Rodewald’s body arrived home for burial.
“There must have been 50 to 100 bikers, I don’t know,” John Rodewald, his father, told a reporter from ABC’s KEZI News in Eugene. “It’s overwhelming for us, and it’s proper for Joe.”
Observing the reception the Patriot Guard Riders, along with other veterans and community members, paid his nephew in Ontario yesterday, Ricky Pallares expressed the family’s appreciation. “Ronnie deserves all this,” he told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. “He deserves the best.”
The families of two fallen soldiers expressed their appreciation to the Patriot Guard Riders who supported their loved ones’ funerals during an Oct. 21 tribute in Reinbeck, Iowa.
Lori Laborde, wife of Army Sgt. Command Maj. John Keith Laborde, and Kandie Vaughn, stepmother of Army Spc. Travis Vaughn, hosted a lunch for the riders at the local American Legion post. Vaughn, 26, was killed in a 2007 helicopter crash in southeastern Afghanistan, and Laborde, a 53-year-old Army reservist, died of a heart attack in April after physical training in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
“We were very honored they were there,” Lori Laborde told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier of Waterloo, Iowa, of the Patriot Guard Rider’s role in her husband’s funeral. “It meant a lot to our family.”
The Laborde family announced at the luncheon that it was donating part of Laborde’s memorial fund to the Patriot Guard Riders to help defray their operational costs. When she and her children discussed the plan to make a donation in their husband’s and father’s memory, Lori told the reporter the decision was “unanimous.”
Richart, an Air Force veteran who deployed to Dharan, Saudi Arabia, during Operation Desert Storm, said he and his fellow riders feel a special connection to the grieving families they support.
“If you go out there and you give a couple hours of your time and show families that people care and share their loss, it’s very touching to them and to us,” he said.
“We want them to know their son not only meant a lot to the family, he meant a lot to the nation,” Candy Rodriguez, a Vietnam veteran, said during her Inland Valley Daily Bulletin interview while escorting the Pallares family yesterday.
Ron Emrich, a retired Coast Guardsman from Mobile, Ala., said he felt honored to play a role in Newman’s funeral. “Even though I didn’t know him, he’s like a brother to me,” Emrich told a Hattiesburg American reporter. “We all experience it.”
At Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., retired airman Dominick Gezzi said he’s shared that connection since joining the Patriot Guard Riders more than five years ago.
“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 told Kimberly Wright of the Air University public affairs office. “It also allows me to continue to show how proud I am to have been in the military.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)