About 100 somber men and women in black leather vests line every pathway in front of the cream-colored funeral home in Chatham. On every vest is a collection of colorful patches proclaiming the wearer’s religion, military service and other affiliations and creeds. Most arrived earlier that day on rumbling motorcycles, and each now holds an American flag as they dutifully pay their respects to the fallen. They are the Illinois Patriot Guard, and they seem ready to live up to their name.
Established in 2005, the Patriot Guard is a loosely-knit group of mostly motorcycle riders who travel to funerals and memorial services for current or former members of the military to honor their service. Most are veterans themselves, and the come prepared to act as shields against sometimes hateful protesters. The group visited Chatham on Nov. 11, 14 and 15 for the memorial services of Army Cpl. James “Chad” Young, 25, of Rochester. Young was killed by an improvised explosive device on Nov. 3 during his second deployment in Afghanistan.
“He’s a soldier who has died for our rights, and we’re just here to honor him and show the respect due to him and his family,” says John Stewart, senior ride captain of the Illinois Patriot Guard’s south-central region. “We’re here to serve the family; whatever they ask, we’ll try to do for them. A lot of us are Vietnam veterans, and when we came back, we were disrespected. They will never be disrespected again.”
The Patriot Guard began in Kansas as a response to the vitriolic protests of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an extremist group that pickets funerals of soldiers under the premise that God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality. WBC is known to raise money through lawsuits against governments and individuals on the basis of free speech infringement and alleged assault. The group was rumored to have protest plans for Young’s funeral, but they did not show up.
Thomas Spurgeon, assistant ride captain and two-year member of the Patriot Guard, says the Patriot Guard respects the protesters’ right to free speech, but works to minimize their interference in funeral services.
“We are here to shelter and shield the family from those types of events,” he says. “We don’t agree with them, but we understand that’s their right. That’s one of many rights these young men and women are fighting to protect, and have for 200 and some years. We feel we need to be out here to do what we can to help the families through this time.”
The Patriot Guard only appears at services to which they are invited, Stewart notes, adding that the group welcomes participants of all political beliefs and does not require participants to be veterans or even motorcycle riders.
“It brings everybody out,” Stewart says, adding that “these communities have just treated us overwhelmingly well. They really honor what we stand for.”
Jim Skeeter of Springfield has been to three or four funerals with the Patriot Guard. He is constantly amazed, he says, that veterans from all over the state come to pay tribute to a fallen soldier they don’t even know.
“Most of these guys have sacrificed far more than I have,” Skeeter says. “But just to support and give honor to the family is really amazing. It’s a real tear jerker. We’re all here for the same reason – because we’re Americans.”
Stewart says first-time Patriot Guard participants always end up staying active in the group.
“It gets into your heart,” he says. “The sunglasses cover the tear that comes to your eye, and whether you’ve done one or a hundred of them, you’ll still get that tear in your eye.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.