Monday, March 21, 2011

My First Mission with the Patriot Guard Riders

I’ve never been a joiner of groups or clubs, and I’ve preferred to ride my motorcycle alone or with just one other guy, but the other day I impulsively joined the American Legion Patriot Guard Riders. I was walking past the American Legion Post here in Green Valley and saw a bunch of cool, big motorcycles in the parking lot. I asked one of the guys what it was all about and before you know it, I was a member.
I went on my first mission last Saturday. A 66-year old former Navy man suddenly died of a heart attack. He was a Patriot Guard Rider from Washington State and his wife thought it appropriate for the PGR to honor him at his memorial. The ride was out of Tucson and I was the only rider coming up from Green Valley. We rendezvoused at a McDonalds in north Tucson. Most of the guys rode Harleys and dressed in leather vests or jackets with military and Patriot Guard patches, pins and buttons all over them. I’ve never been one to wear veteran paraphernalia and have never dressed in a macho way, I’m sure I looked rather plain in comparison. But these guys seemed comfortable and natural in their “Hells Angels/Harley rider/veteran outfits”. In the not too distant past this group of ex-military guys and a few women, would have dressed alike in military or club uniforms. Somewhere along the line the independent rebel image took over. But there was a definite conformity to their nonconformity
I introduced myself at one of the outside tables and the guys were welcoming. A Mexican American guy called Baldy made sure to introduce me around to some of the other guys. I assume he was bald, but couldn’t tell because of his PGR doo rag. I had two main concerns about riding for that length of time in the middle of a long line of motorcycles.They were abated when one of the Ride Captains called out “fill your tanks and empty your bladders, we’re heading out in a few minutes”. After a short briefing from another Ride Captain, we left for the hour’s ride up to Florence where the deceased Navy guy and his wife spent their winters.
It was a beautiful ride from Tucson to Florence on Highway 79. The weather was perfect, sunny and in the mid 70s. Arizona has to be one of the best states in the US for motorcycling. The two lane roads are well maintained and open country stretches out on all sides. Our destination was a Sonic burger stand in Florence. There, we would meet up with other Patriot Guard Riders from Phoenix as well as the deceased man’s wife and two daughters.
After sitting around the burger stand for about an hour, finally a dozen or more riders arrived as well as a car containing the wife and daughters. The head Ride Captain, who was a tough looking woman with a pink bandana tied around her head, gathered us into a large circle out in the parking lot near our motorcycles. She introduced the wife and daughters. We all clapped and they tearfully thanked us for coming. Some of the guys walked over and gave them hugs. Then we all held hands, widening our circle. I grabbed the hand of a big dude with a leather vest and chains. He quickly switched our hands around, looked over at me and said. “I don’t know you well enough to hold your hand like that.” The ride captain switched on the stereo system on one of the large tricycles and the Lee Greenwood song, “God Bless the USA” began to play. I’ve always considered this song sort of sappy and overly patriotic, but standing there close to the family who were now openly crying, it seemed appropriate and even inspiring. I don’t think I’d ever really listened to the words that closely, but it is a tribute to veterans. It sounded as if it were written to the civilian population, telling them not to take our way of life for granted, but to be grateful for all those who served and gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy. I was actually tearing up a bit and feeling a little “proud to be an American”. I think I even gave the big macho dude’s hand a little squeeze.
After the song, we bowed our heads and one of the riders led us in prayer for the deceased and his family. One of the daughters ran and got her dad’s ashes from the car and they were placed on a motorcycle ridden by a Navy veteran. We lined up our bikes. The motorcycles with American flags up were in the front,  One had a mounted Navy flag in honor of the deceased. In staggered formation, all 46 motorcycles with 3 local policemen escorting us, slowly rode toward the family’s mobile home court where the memorial would be held. 
As we pulled into the trailer court, local residents lined the street with their hands over their hearts. We parked our bikes near the recreation center where the memorial was to be held. One of the guys opened the back of our support truck and began handing out American flags. We each grabbed one and stood in a big semicircle while the family and guests walked through and into the rec center. When they were all in and seated, we shortened the masts on our flags and walked into the rec center in single file. There was a table in the front of the hall with the deceased man’s ashes and a picture of him and his wife in an attractive frame. As each of us passed in front of the table, we stopped, turned toward the picture and saluted. We then formed another semi-circle behind the table and facing the audience. Our Ride Captain told the audience how grateful we were for the man’s service to his country and thanked the family for inviting us there to honor him. His family was again crying and thanking us profusely. I thought about all the veterans I’ve known who have died, especially my friend, Darrell. I had to hold back my tears.
Before going on this first mission, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it, but now I can honestly say, I felt proud to stand with other veterans to honor a man I never knew. I have absolutely no doubt that this ragged bunch of ex-military men and women helped the family with their grief. I received my “Mission accomplished” pin and was told I was no longer an “FNG” (fucking new guy).
After the ceremony most of the PGR members rode to a local bar for beer and burgers. I had a coke and hung around for a while. They all shook my hand and thanked me for coming and then Baldy and I took off for Tucson. Baldy lives in Tucson, but before peeling off for home, he made sure I knew the best route with the least amount of traffic. On my solo ride back to Green Valley, I thought about how good I felt for having been part of this mission. It did not feel political or as if it had any other agenda except to humbly show respect and appreciation for a man who willing and honorably served his country. I look forward to my next mission, and I’m going to proudly wear my PGR Mission Accomplished pin.