USA — Motorcycle Group Supports Military Funerals

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)

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