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When the Westboro Baptist Church decided to protest a 2005 military funeral in Oklahoma, a Kansas chapter of the American Legion Riders decided to shield the family from the protesters — and decided to keep up that mission. Before long, the Patriot Guard Riders had spun off into its own organization. The organization has about 50,000 active members nationwide.
On a chilly, clear November morning, retired Air Force Maj. Robbie Smart and 14 other veterans gathered outside the gates of Quantico National Cemetery. They wore black leather jackets and vests with patches recording their service during wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
These members of the Virginia chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders were there to pay their respects to former Pvt. Eugene Curry. None had met the late Marine and Vietnam veteran, but all felt it important to come out at the Curry family's request. This mission's ride captain passed around a photo of Curry and spoke of his service, Purple Heart and post-war efforts to help veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange, as Curry was.
Then the riders climbed onto their motorcycles — mostly Harley Davidsons, decked out with American flags — and slowly, solemnly rode into the cemetery.
The Patriot Guard Riders was founded in 2005, after the Westboro Baptist Church — which says troops' deaths are God's punishment to America for tolerating homosexuality — decided to protest a military funeral in Oklahoma, said Smart, who was recently elected PGR's national president.
Q. What made you decide to get involved with the Patriot Guard Riders?
A. I had seen the news reports about this group protesting funerals, and this other group that was somewhat reported as a counterprotest group at the funerals, though that was not what they were doing. That was PGR. I've been overseas three times, and not everybody came home. I can't tell you the anguish of seeing somebody protest at a funeral, especially for the children and the families. And I just said, "I've got to do something. I can't just sit here." It looked like an excellent opportunity, a way to ... turn [a negative feeling] into something good.
Q. Why is the work the Patriot Guard Riders so important?
A. I'm always amazed by the families coming up to us. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we don't know anybody. We're just John Q. Public showing our support. Their parents are in anguish. [chokes up] And they want to shake our hands. It's phenomenal. Somehow it touches the hearts of these families, that we do understand their anguish, we understand their sacrifice that they made for us. You don't have to have but one mom come up and shake your hand, or try to give you a hug, and after that you'll come back.
Q. What's the most memorable thing you've ever encountered on one of these missions?
A. I was on a mission escorting a young Marine [sergeant killed in Iraq] out to King George [County, Va., in early 2007]. It was a big procession, we probably had 50 motorcycles. As we got on Route 3, there were cars — we were eastbound — that were westbound, separated by a median, and they were stopping, and getting out of their car, and standing at attention as we passed. That's pretty powerful. They didn't know [who it was] … but they saw the flags, they knew what was going on when they saw the hearse.
Q. When you run up against protesters, how do you handle that?
A. We just ignore them. We move our flag lines a little closer, so that the family and friends see us and not them. That means we put up a corridor down the sidewalk [or] a line on one side of the sidewalk. If they get noisy, we crank the motorcycles. But if at all possible, turn your backs on any protest type group ... and do not acknowledge them verbally.
I've heard of them [PGR members and protesters] shouting back and forth. That's not what we need to do. We're not there to create a [scene]. We're there to shield the family.
Q. If you came face to face with Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church, what would you say to him?
A. It's not about fighting with him. It's about honoring our war heroes. So I doubt I'd have anything to say.
I've said this as a state captain to some members: PGR's attitude should be, if we're at a mission, the protesters are there, and one of the protesters is injured somehow, accidentally steps in front of a car, or whatever, PGR members should be the first ones there to render assistance. We need to let their children know, this is not about us and them, this is about what's right.