The sight of a group of individuals - often with very stoic expressions - riding motorcycles and each flying a large American flag anchored securely at the back of their vehicle so they are held out fully while driving down a roadway as part of a formal procession or motorcade is something most of us have seen a few times.
We may not, however, have realized those individuals are today looked on as nothing short of a unique Honor Guard representation, as members of the Patriot Guard Riders participate in such ventures only when requested to do so by a veteran's family.
Each request is unique, and considered equally important.
Members of the nationwide group Patriot Guard Riders now number in excess of 300,000. Their work is focused on honoring our service members by supporting military funerals, as well as unit call to duty send-off events and welcome home ceremonies. This is a typical display during the memorial service of a fallen hero.
A?PGR member’s vest is adorned with patches commemorating various missions.
Photo provided by the Ohio National Guard
Brigadier General John C. Harris Jr. (center), Ohio assistant adjutant general for the Army, State Command Sgt. Maj. Rodger M. Jones (right) and Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jay K. Stuckman, the Ohio Army National Guard command chief warrant officer pose with members of the Ohio Patriot Guard Riders on June 12 in front of a Cobra AH-1 at the Army Aviation Support Facility No. 2 on Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus, Ohio. Earlier this summer, 17 members of the Ohio-based arm of the Ohio Patriot Guard Riders were caught completely by surprise when they were unexpectedly on the receiving end of awards recognizing their service to our military men and women. They received Ohio Commendation Medals, which were personally presented to each of the 17 by the top military official in the State of Ohio, Brigadier General John C. Harris Jr. This specific recognition is rarely awarded to civilians, making the surprise award of these medals and the accompanying commendation that much more noteworthy in the public eye and appreciated by the recipients.
Some of the missions the organization's membership in this region have accepted called for just a handful of riders and a small contingent to stand a flag line at a cemetery, while still others, such as when they were called on to escort "The Wall" from Eastern Ohio to its next home in West Virginia, brought out a force of almost 900 PGR regional members as participants in the escort.
The Patriot Guard Riders organization's members respond to various invitations from families of veterans, most often requesting an escort to a final resting place.
Each mission accepted by a PGR team is focused on ensuring a show of respect for the individual being honored. Within that mission, there are times when conditions call for the appearance of what is essentially visual proof of the strength that comes in unity.
But that is only part of the overall purpose of the visual message.
The other is unabashedly meant as a show of deep respect of an individual's sacrifice and/or accomplishments.
From the dawn of time, respect has been a highly valued quality and essential to every successful culture.
Earning the respect of others simply by the caliber of how a person lives his life is something you can count on to be a core character trait of those looked to as heroes of this nation.
Who are our American heroes? According to the 300,000 members of the national structure of the Patriot Guard Riders, those select individuals are found in the ranks of our military veterans - all generations and among all branches of service, our first responders and our law enforcement personnel.
Without an element of genuine respect to help support a society from within on good days and on tough ones as well, chaos can too easily ensue and a collapse from within is all but guaranteed.
The Patriot Guard Riders, as an organization, exists to protect an American hero's right - and that of their loved ones - to be accorded a genuine show of respect for their commitment and sacrifices, particularly at pivotal times such as initial deployments, returning from overseas deployments, or escorting a fallen hero home for burial, explained Toronto resident Wendell Keyser, recently.
A Vietnam era veteran, he served in the U.S. Air Force with the Strategic Air Command and today serves as what the PGR describes as a Ride Captain, a key connection to and organizer of missions accepted by a local contingent of the members.
The organization's mission in its clearest form is centered on ensuring "dignity and respect at memorial services honoring Fallen Military Heroes, First Responders and Honorably Discharged Veterans."
The Patriot Guard Riders organization is now national, and is a non-profit entity with an official standing as a 501c 3 entity.
It was founded as an amalgamation of several other entities that saw the need to join together to escort or literally stand in protection of the nation's heroes who can no longer do so but who had once done so for all Americans. Sometimes the need was so extreme it called for them to literally surround funeral homes to protect families from outside disruptive forces such as protesters.
"Protesters from the West Borough Baptist Church would stand across the street and protest the funeral. They had the constitutional right to have their say. We fought to give them that right," reflected Keyser, whose service with the U.S. Air Force was concentrated largely with the Strategic Air Command.
"The military could do nothing. The police could do nothing. But the Vietnam Vets and the American Legion Riders said, 'Enough is enough and it's got to stop.' So they formed a group to go to that funeral. They took the 3x5 flags - and I'm not talking the little ones. I'm talking the full flags. They stood with their flags and surrounded the funeral home and the family, and they revved their engines so they could not hear what was going on. They protected that family and that service," shared Keyser, referring to the initial action taken by the PGR's founders.
The organization is now at least 300,000 members strong, with missions being addressed on a 24-7 basis.
"When you see a funeral procession with an emblem of a military branch on a hearse and see Patriot Guard Riders out there in front, you know we're there to honor a fallen hero, and to make sure they get all the honor and respect that's due them," explained Keyser.
But there are other missions taken on by PGR members as well, in all kinds of weather conditions and at any hour of the day or night.
"When our military leave to go overseas, the Patriot Guard Riders are on the tarmac, standing with our flags sending our troops off," he offered.
"When they come back from Afghanistan - or wherever they are coming back from - the Patriot Guard Riders are there on the tarmac, receiving them. We are probably the only group recognized by all branches of the military and law enforcement, and because of what we do for our veterans are allowed to pretty much go where we need to go to do what we do.
"We are there for our veterans for honor and respect," he said.
Recently, some of Ohio's military leadership decided to turn the table on the volunteers.
On the morning of April 9 of this year, 17 members of the Ohio PGR's District 6 roster arrived at a designated gate at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Columbus.
It was a 7 a.m. arrival time and the volunteers were there for what they thought was solely to be the honor of holding medals for presentation to military personnel.
"We were escorted to the Special Operations section of the base. People are there waiting for something to get started when a Captain stepped in and called the room to attention," recalled Keyser. "As we began to stand up, a Brigadier General entered the room and came straight over to talk with members of the PGR. We really had no idea what was going on."
Keyser explained the Brigadier General's position in the military as being the highest general within the State of Ohio's governmental structure.
"He was talking to us about how he was looking forward to his retirement so he could join us and serve as a Patriot Guard Rider," said Keyser with a smile. "Hey remember, years before we had put our hands up and sworn an oath: just because you get out of the military does not mean you stop serving!"
"You were called here on the assumption you were going to hold the medals to be presented to our military. But, let me tell you this: we are here to present medals to you, the Patriot Guard Riders," was the General's message.
"Seventeen of us received a commendation medal from the State of Ohio with orders to wear that ribbon. What a high honor it was! That's how important the PGR are to our military, to our veterans. So when you see those guys out there riding as a group with flags proudly flying, they are on a mission," offered Keyser.
"This vest I wear has patches commemorating a lot of the missions we have done. It represents a lot of people who have served as military, first responders or law enforcement. I was in the United States Air Force. I was in our nation's military and I served our country. I got out. I'm still serving. I will serve my country til they close my lid. That's how much I love my military and how much I love my country, how much I love our veterans."
Membership in Patriot Guard Riders is not limited to veterans. It is not required that a member own or even ride a motorcycle. Information on the organization is available on the Internet, beginning at www.patriotguardriders.com.
The single core requirement: have an "unwavering respect for those who risk their very lives for America's freedom and security including fallen Military Heroes, First Responders, and Honorably Discharged Veterans."
"The only prerequisite is respect."