OWINGSVILLE, Ky. (FOX 56) — When you see a group of motorcyclists surround a funeral home, there’s a good chance flags will soon be flying, and everyone passing by will know we’ve lost another veteran.
“The flags flying make the biggest difference to the families and the people that come to these funerals because it shows them that this guy or woman was a hero,” said Kelly Shehan, one of the state’s many captains for the Patriot Guard Riders. “They gave their time. They stood for us. Now we’re standing for them.”
The group was founded in Kansas in 2005 as an effort to shield funeralgoers from hateful messages displayed by members of Westboro Baptist Church, who preached that soldiers were dying because America is a sinful nation. Soon, the mission spread across the country as a way to show respect to any veteran or first responder. It’s believed there are now more than 200,000 Patriot Guard Riders who attend funerals year-round in all kinds of weather.
Whitey Marshall said, “I don’t know the exact number, but I’ve done well over a thousand, and it’s just an honor to be here for the families.”
On a recent October day, the riders stood outside the funeral of James Johnson in Owingsville, whose military career was extraordinary. Johnson served in the Army, then the Marines, and ended up as a Navy Seal. His family said he would’ve loved this show of support.
“Oh, he’d be smiling,” said his brother, Jeff Johnson. “He’d be smiling and duck his head. He’d be proud. He’d be really happy.”
Anyone can be a member of the Patriot Guard Riders. You don’t have to be a motorcyclist or even a veteran. The only requirement is patriotism.
Shehan, who is not a veteran himself, said, “I found I had the time, and I wanted to give back.”
At the conclusion of a veteran’s funeral, the riders get on their motorcycles and escort the hearse to the cemetery, where the volunteers once again stand guard if the family requests it. The riders also often serve as pallbearers for veterans who have no family left. They’re always looking for more volunteers.
Marshall said, “If they have any heart at all and they come to a mission and do one or two, they’re hooked. Very few that ever comes and helps us once or twice don’t keep coming back.”
A military funeral often comes with the sound of gunfire and taps, and thanks to this group, there’s another sound of respect—the roar of motorcycles.
To volunteer or request the riders to attend a funeral, go to patriotguard.org.