Riding with unwavering respect

By Patti Sells | News-Telegram Feature Writer

With mottos such as "Help On The Home Front," "Stand Tall and Silent," "Standing For Those Who Stood For Us" and "Riding With Respect," one thing is evident about the Patriot Guard Riders – their ultimate goal is to honor

veterans and soldiers who have risked their lives for America's freedoms and security.

"We are not a veterans organization – we are a patriotic organization," explained Ron Awtry, known as "Bear" among his leather clad motorcycle friends. "We're made up of a broad spectrum of people that would surprise you."

The Patriot Guard Riders is a diverse assembly from across the nation with more than motorcycles in common; they have an unwavering respect for men and women who serve our country.

Having a motorcycle is not the main criteria of being a member, according to Awtry, who is on PGR's national board of directors. The main criteria for membership is respect for our country, and the men and women who fight for its freedoms and protection, he said.

Members include middle-aged moms and grandparents, some who have served and some who have not, to Vietnam veteran's determined to never allow today's soldier the experience of dishonor, disrespect and blatant harassment that they encountered.

"They've adopted the motto, Never Again. Not On My Watch,' Awtry said. "A lot of old vets have passed on. Many others feel they have nothing to do but make things right."

Patriot Guard Riders became an established organization in October 2005, but the premise of the idea began a bit earlier, in August of that same year when the American Legion Riders Chapter 136 from Kansas heard that the memory of fallen soldiers was being tarnished by misguided religious zealots protesting at military funerals.

The Kansas group took action and came up with a strategy to combat such intrusions.

With permission from the military families mourning the loss of loved ones, as well as local law enforcement agencies, the American Legion Riders recruited veterans and other motorcycle groups to join in their missions by participating in the funeral processions.

With the roar of motorcycle engines and American flags flying, the assembly of bikers provided a distraction and barrier of protection against any negative outside interferences. At the cemetery, the group forms a flag line and circle around the family, not only forming a wall of protection, but displaying a show of honor as well.

"That's what we're there for; to protect and honor the family," said PGR member, Andrew Morel of Sulphur Springs, whose first mission was that of Staff Sgt. Michael Chad Loyd who was killed in Iraq and laid to rest in August of last year. "When the opportunity came up for us to ride with PGR to honor a soldier from Sulphur Springs, we didn't need to think twice about it. We only needed to know where and what time."

According to Morel, a veteran of Desert Storm, patriotism is something near and dear to his heart. He said he and his wife, Renea, begin each day by looking on the PGR website to plan their next mission to honor a fallen solder.

"They are considered fallen heroes' at our house," said Renea, the mother of three boys who one day plan to follow in their father's footsteps and join the military. "Rain, shine, hot or cold – we have rode to honor a fallen soldier."

When possible, the Morels take their boys, Travis, 8, Alex, 11, and 14-year-old Damian along with them on missions, Renea driving in the car (a "cage" in biker lingo) with the boys, and Andrew on his bike.

Each mission is like an emotional roller coaster ride, according to Renea, who said seeing people waving flags and men getting out of their vehicles to salute is enough to make a grown man cry, and often does.

"It's very emotional," Morel said. "It brings tears to my eyes every time. You go through a whole gamut of emotions."

One PGR member joked that he was going to have to break down and buy a new pair of glasses because his kept leaking.

"We're just a bunch of big old grown men – crying," said Doug "Streaker" Smith, deputy state captain of the East Texas chapter who was in the area for the funeral of PV2 Charles "Chuck" Darren Yates of Winnsboro, who died during Army training exercises in Florida. "We have a camaraderie. We all show up for the same reason; to honor fallen soldiers. They are the heroes and we are their cheerleaders."

Smith, who lives in Palestine, said his father was a POW during WWII. He was raised very patriotically, and was disappointed when he himself was not able to serve his country due to a medical condition.

"It only took finding out the organization existed for me to join," emphasized Smith.

It was Jeff "Twister" Brown of Broken Bow, Okla., a volunteer rider in two of the American Legion's early missions, who realized their was a need to get a strong nation-wide communications and recruiting program in place. He

took it upon himself to contact the original American Legion Riders in order to share his ideas and plans for the group.

It was with their encouragement and support that the Patriot Guard Riders was formed and formally announced to more than 100 volunteer riders present at the Tonganoxie Kansas Mission on Oct. 27, 2005.

After experiencing a mission ride in Colorado, Hugh Knaus and Jason Wallin joined the newly formed Patriot Guard. Knaus as the groups national webmaster, and Wallin as the communications director.

In just a matter of days, a website was launched, a mission statement was put in place and a call was made for riders nationwide. Soon state captains were recruited to work with members in their area and within a week, membership included riders from associations such as the VFW, American Legion, Rolling Thunder, ABATE, Combat Vets Motorcycle Association, Intruder Alert, Leatherneck Motorcycle Club, as well as approximately 500 individual riders.

The PGR website received almost 566,000 hits in the first two weeks.

Not only does PGR take part in funeral processions, they provide escorts from the airport, attend Welcome Home events for injured soldiers and provide assistance to veterans when ever a need is brought to their

attention, as was the case of a Vietnam veteran living in nearby Winnsboro.

Morel, due to his close proximity to the neighboring town, volunteered to head up the project which involved improving the disabled veteran's living conditions.

"It was bad. There were holes in the walls, torn carpet, the floor was unlevel. He had no running water," recalled Morel, who enlisted the help of Clayton Homes.

As if the situation wasn't bad enough, according to Morel, when the veteran was away having surgery at the VA hospital for an extended period of time, his remote home was vandalized.

Clayton Homes General Manager, Mike Dunston, a Vietnam veteran himself, was more than happy to comply with the Patriot Guards request. He sent a crew of three men who worked on the project for six days.

"They went above and beyond what we ever expected," Morel said.

According to Morel, new laminate flooring was put down, walls were torn down with new ones installed, water and drain lines were put in and Clayton Homes even provided the veteran with a new handicap shower.

"They even shimmied the walls in the hall out and made it wider so he can get his wheelchair through there," Morel explained. "They did more than fix this guys home-they gave him his dignity back."

"I was honored to be asked to help," was all that Dunston said.

Providing "Help on the Home Front" to veterans and their families in whatever capacity necessary is the Patriot Guard Riders main objective, according to Morel.

"We will always be there, offering help, respect, honor, anything we can," he said. "That's what Patriot Guards are all about."

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