'Patriot Guard' protects military funerals from antigay protests

Former Marine Staff Sgt. Terry Ellis one of the Patriot Guard Riders.
Former Marine Staff Sgt. Terry Ellis one of the Patriot Guard Riders. Lisa James / Merced Sun-Star

A soldier returning to his parents in a casket may be the most painful thing for a family to endure. But the nightmare worsens.

Imagine saying goodbye to your loved one -- your son, your brother, your husband, your father, your childhood friend -- and lurking on the fringes are protesters, using the death of your loved one for their own agenda.

One group of dedicated veterans, the Patriot Guard Riders, are there keep the protesters away.

The antigay Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., routinely disrupts military funerals, holding bright-colored signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "God Hates America."

The presence of the Patriot Guard, however, seems to deter such intrusions. At the funeral of Merced, Calif., Army Pfc. Lukas Hopper last Saturday, the Patriot Guard Riders were there at the Hopper family's request — and the protesters were nowhere to be seen.

In solemn silence, the slightly grisly veterans stood in rigid formation bearing American and Army flags. They joined the 45-minute procession from Merced to Catheys Valley Cemetery.

Their flags, their bikes and most of all their daunting presence was the first thing a passerby may have noticed. By mourners, they were probably hardly noticed at all.

Born out of protests that threatened to disrupt the 2005 funeral of 19-year-old Carrie French, and later that summer, the funeral of Edward Myers, both killed in Iraq, the Patriot Guard Riders banded together to ensure that fallen heroes are honored with respect and dignity.

Since its formation, the Patriot Guard Riders has grown into a national organization with a membership of more than 170,000, including members in Merced and Mariposa counties.

The Riders participation is voluntary and only upon the request of a soldier, veteran or the family of a soldier. The Patriot Guard Riders also offer their services at welcome-home celebrations and send-offs.

The Patriot Guard Riders are compromised primarily of military veterans and bikers, but neither is a requirement. According to their mission statement "The only prerequisite is RESPECT."

Pfc. Hopper was laid to rest Saturday with all of the dignity and honor that a soldier who has served his country deserves. A barrier of denim and leather-clad men and women holding flags surrounded the funeral services. A motorcade of Harleys, flags waving from the bikes, joined the procession.

"There is a mentality and attitude in the military," said Vietnam veteran Terry Ellis, of Coarsegold. "We don't leave another brother behind on the battlefield. We're not on the battlefield anymore, but we don't want anyone to think they are in this all alone.'

As it should be, Hopper's memory and service to his country was the only story to be told.