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Forming a Protective Outer Circle: The Patriot Guard Riders

“All these single headlights were coming down the road straight toward me when I was driving to work this morning,” a friend tells us. “Suddenly this long line of motorcycles appears out of the mist. Each one has an American flag on the back of it. It was amazing; I’ve never seen anything like it.” By her vivid description, we know exactly who she’s referring to, the Patriot Guard Riders of New York.

The idea of a Patriot Guard took hold in Kansas in July 2005 when the wife of an American Legion Rider learned that a group of protesters had disrupted an Oklahoma soldier’s funeral. This incident inspired the woman and her husband to organize a group to ride their motorcycles to the funerals of other soldiers, not only to show their respect to those who chose to serve our country, but also to prevent further disturbances during these sacred ceremonies. The national PGR is a 100 percent volunteer 501(c) (3) that formed shortly afterward with the goal of ensuring “dignity and respect at memorial services honoring Fallen Military Heroes, First Responders and Honorably Discharged Veterans” by encouraging both veterans and motorcycle riders in every state to form their own Patriot Rider groups. PGR makes it quite clear that they’re not a protest group, nor are they affiliated with such a group, and the following statement on their website sums up their philosophy and goals: “We don’t care what you ride or if you ride, what your political views are, or whether you’re a hawk or a dove. It is not a requirement that you be a veteran. It doesn't matter where you’re from or what your income is; you don’t even have to ride. The only prerequisite is Respect.”

New York State has an active PGR group, PGRNY, a nonprofit group organized exclusively for charitable and community service purposes. There are no meetings and no membership dues, something that most of the organization’s members find very appealing. PGRNY is made up of nine regions across our state. Fourteen counties in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions — including Monroe, Wayne, Tompkins and Broome — make up Region 2, which has a senior ride captain and eight ride captains.

Tim Yetter, a Patriot Guard Rider from Penn Yan, is one such ride captain. Training to be a ride captain was simple, Mr. Yetter tells us. “You shadow an experienced ride captain on a mission; then you’re ready to go.” All ride captains are also given access to a manual which outlines in plain language what is and isn’t acceptable on a mission. It’s important that we understand that PGR is no stereotypical biker group; everything they do is accomplished through strictly legal and non-violent means, Mr. Yetter clarifies. Additionally, the half-page, online PGRNY membership registration form specifies that anyone who has a felony conviction for a violent crime, either against children or involving domestic violence, is not welcome to be part of the group.

Front-of-Motorcycle Photo by Sue Henninger.

Those who do sign up aren’t all veterans, but they are all committed to uniting to show their support for active US service members, veterans and their families. A message of solidarity is posted on the PGR website: “To those of you who are currently serving and fighting for the freedoms of others, at home and abroad, please know that we are backing you. We honor and support you with every mission we carry out, and we are praying for a safe return home for all.” There is no archetype for membership. Mr. Yetter assures us, “We have lawyers, plumbers, accountants and teachers who belong. We’ve had teenagers and seniors participate in our missions, even a golden retriever showed up for a mission once!” PGRNY has no political leanings. Female motorcyclists are welcome, and both Regions 1 and 3 have ride captains who are women. To Mr. Yetter’s knowledge, there has never been a female ride captain in Region 2 but he adds, “I could name a couple of women that could be!” Even owning a motorcycle isn’t a prerequisite for membership, though he estimates that about 99 percent of PGRNY’s members are bikers. Those without a motorcycle join the escort in their four-wheel vehicles, usually at the end of the procession. In fact, the only requirement to be part of PGRNY is that you have a deep respect for veterans, service members and first responders. What does respect mean to Mr. Yetter personally? “Respect is showing the family that there’s someone out there that cares about the veteran, somebody that is sharing their grief,” he explains succinctly.

The purpose of every mission is twofold: to show up and stand up for the fallen hero(es) and to shield the mourners from interruptions created by outsiders, usually in the form of media, protesters or curious onlookers. A mission begins when a family submits a request to the State PGR, who forward it to the senior ride captain. In turn, the senior ride captain shares the information with the ride captain who lives nearest to the mission location. Sometimes there will also be a phone call, usually from a funeral director, requesting the PGR’s assistance in some way. The ride captain then collects pertinent information from the funeral director or obituary, writes a brief summary of the deceased’s situation and sends out an email blast to his region’s members, and often to those in adjacent regions as well, especially if the request for volunteer riders is last minute. Mr. Yetter frequently contacts Region 1 (Buffalo area) and Region 3 (Syracuse and north of Syracuse, including Fort Drum) for extra volunteers, and likewise participates in their missions whenever he can; he’s even traveled as far afield as Utica and Watertown.

Some missions simply involve standing in a flag line, which not only provides a solid show of respect but also serves to physically block others from intruding on the family’s privacy. If the ceremony is expected to be well-attended, the ride captain and the local police department may also touch base. For example, when a younger soldier from Cohocton was KIA (killed in action) a few years ago, there was a community ceremony on the local football field and a PGRNY presence was requested to prevent any potential protesters from disrupting the event. Mr. Yetter recalls that around 450 PGR members showed up, along with members of law enforcement, and everything went smoothly.

Other duties of the PGRNY can include escorting a KIA from the airport to the funeral home or attending calling hours at the request of the family. If it’s the return of a full (living) battalion sometimes the PGRNY will ask to be part of the welcome home greeting committee. “We’ll go to the airport and escort them home or to a party house and shake the vets’ hands and thank them for their service,” Mr. Yetter tells us. Missions can be emotionally and physically draining for the riders, he admits, especially when it’s a young person that’s been killed in action. But it’s the way the PGRNY members choose to give back to those who serve our country and they do it willingly, from their hearts.

The road riders our friend saw traveling along Seneca Lake that misty morning were on a typical mission. Members of the Region 2 group met in Watkins Glen, then trekked to the Varick Fire Station, where they convened with a group of PGRNYs from the Rochester area. Thirty bikers in all rode over to the Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Romulus where they dismounted from their motorcycles and formed a standing flag line, each leather-clad PGRNY member carefully holding a proudly waving star-spangled banner. Mr.Yetter explains they hold this position until the family arrives and the service begins. Next they move to the grave site, standing solemnly by while the remains are interred. Mr. Yetter has been a PGRNY member since 2006 and estimates that he’s participated in hundreds of missions like this, both as ride captain and as a member of other ride captain’s missions, along with other events like Veterans Recovery ceremonies and Veterans and Memorial Day parades. For him, the Veteran’s Recovery Program ceremonies are particularly meaningful. This program evolved when New York State told its funeral directors that they needed to find out when one of their deceased clients (with no family or friends to make arrangements for the body) was in the military so they could receive a proper send-off to a final resting place instead of simply being relegated to an urn on a shelf. “We hold a ceremony for their remains,” Mr. Yetter explains. “We just had one for a dozen veterans at the Bath National Cemetery in June. Twelve PGR members were the pall bearers, and 12 other PGR members accepted the American flag in place of the absent family members. It was really something to see.” He adds that the PGR members who accept the flags usually take them to their own home and reverently display them there.

In the spirit of Veteran’s Day, let’s consider those who protect the country's rights and freedoms both at home and abroad. If you’ve lost someone in the military, or if you just want to find a way to say “thank you” to those who serve, Mr. Yetter suggests, “Visit our site and see what we’re all about. We’re always looking for more volunteers.”