I’ve ridden on 4 Patriot Guard missions so far, two were funerals and two were “welcome home’s”. My second mission was the funeral of a young man who completed 2 tours in the Middle-East, got out of the Marines, finished his training to become a Border Patrol Officer and then died in a motorcycle accident. We provided a flag line at the entrance of the funeral home and another one at the gravesite in the cemetery. There were many young people at this funeral. A few looked like the deceased Marine’s service buddies. I could only imagine what they had been through together. Most of the mourners were probably his family and friends from Tucson.
We did a lot of standing around holding our flags in the hot sun on this mission. Out at the cemetery, it was at least 45 minutes before the mourners showed up from the funeral. I got acquainted with the guy standing across the gravel road from me. He is also a Vietnam Vet and is in a long fight with the VA attempting to get a disability for Post Traumatic Stress disorder. While standing there, suddenly two large hawks collided in the sky above us and clutching each other, spiraled down to the ground and landed in the field not far from the gravesite. I’ve never seen hawks fight before and I braced myself for the feathers to start flying. Then one of the guys down the line exclaimed, “They’re not fighting, they’re doing it.” I couldn’t make out exactly what they were doing, but he was right, they were doing “it”. The fluttering mass of feathers lasted a long time and I felt like a voyeur. Then all of a sudden the two individual birds rose up and flew off in different directions. As we watched them become small specks in the sky, somebody said, “What, no small talk, no cigarette?” We were thankful for the diversion from our standing in the hot sun.
As the cars began entering the cemetery, the Ride Captain announced, “They’re here”, and walked down the line of the flag holders. As he did he looked us over and said, “I’d ask you men to suck ‘em in, but I realize that’s as far as they go.” Sad but true, our average age is probably somewhere in the mid-sixties. Marines in dress blues gave this young Marine a 21-gun salute and then played taps. It was very moving.
Last Friday, the mission was to welcome home two Marines from Afghanistan at the Tucson airport. These welcome home missions are emotional as well, but different emotions. Up until this mission, I didn’t have any identifying patches of paraphernalia to wear. The other guys have vests, jackets, hats and or dew rags with patches and pins all over them. For the first 3 missions, I just stood there in my regular clothes feeling rather plain. So a week ago I ordered some Patriot Guard stuff from a website. I got a hat, a tee-shirt, and a sew-on patch for my jacket. When we met up at the American Legion before the mission, the first thing Sam, the President, and Ride Captain said to me was, “You got the wrong color hat.” It was a green Patriot Guard hat and I was supposed to have a blue one. I didn’t realize that color mattered. I made some excuse like, “It didn’t say anything about it on the website.” and Sam replied, “Yes it did, you just didn’t read it.” I thought the green was a really good color for me. I’m glad I didn’t pick maroon, only Ride Captains wear that color. He didn’t say anything about my new Patriot Guard tee-shirt, so I assumed it was alright.
I definitely needed to get more patches sewn on my jacket, so I decided to study what the other guys had on theirs. When we met up with the Tucson riders at the filing station near the airport, I discreetly checked out their jackets and vests. Except for a few guys who wore a simple shirt with a logo, most everyone else wore leather or blue jean vests with patches and buttons on them. Some were so full, it was hard to focus on individual ones. There were Patriot Guard patches, patches identifying their branch of service, American Legion or VFW Post patches, Vietnam Veteran patches and American flag patches. There were a few patches that I thought were wrong and triggered doubts as to whether I really belonged with this group. For example, one guy had a patch that said, “All I need to know about Muslims, I learned on 9/11.” It reminded me of an old guy in my Veteran support group who every now and then blurted out, “I say kill all those rag heads and let God sort ‘em out.” How do you respond to that kind of comment? I noticed one of the Ride Captains had a confederate flag patch next to his American Rifle Association patch. I was beginning to feel more and more like an underground liberal.
At the airport we rode our bikes right up to the main entrance and the security guy let us park in twos right there along the front. We set up a flag line inside the airport where the passengers are met. I had greeted my sister at that very spot just a few weeks before. The Marine’s plane was late, so again there was a lot of standing around and waiting. At least it was air-conditioned. I was talking to the guy standing next to me and inadvertently loosened my grip on my flag and the tip was touching the ground. All of a sudden a woman across from me yelled out, “Get that flag up off the ground. My husband died defending that flag!” Everyone looked at me and I quickly lifted the flag up and shot her a bewildered and somewhat hostile look.
Her commanding outburst brought up all sorts of feelings. My first thought was, why do I want to hang out with these right wing assholes? But I didn’t want to dwell on it or have it get the best of me, so after I calmed down, I decided to talk to the woman who yelled at me. I went over and asked her about her husband. She said he had been a Marine and was killed in Danang in 1970. I told her I was stationed not far from Danang and that I went on R&R with a bunch of Marines from Danang. She seemed surprised to learn that I was in Vietnam. I suppose I didn’t have on enough identifying patches and buttons. She had on a vest covered with them and one of them represented her late husband’s unit, a Marine recon unit. When she told me about him, she teared-up and then apologized for yelling at me about the flag.
Finally the two marines came down the hall and everyone burst into cheers. They were a young woman and man, possibly married. They thanked all of us flag holders as they walked by and I noticed the young woman Marine had tears in her eyes. They were clearly grateful and moved by the reception. After they passed by, we quickly rolled up our flags and exited. Sam said we needed to remove our bikes from the front of the Airport as soon as possible. We stashed our flags in the back of the truck, hopped on our bikes and took off. As they say in the Patriot Guard, “Another Mission accomplished”. Maybe I like being part of this group after all.