[Note: File this under things that don't make sense but turn out good.]
Standing For Those Who Stood For Us
Patriot Guard Riders
Yesterday, after lying around all day, I got out of bed and went to the screening of a movie about the Patriot Guard Riders. Mainly I went because it was a fund raiser for the Jacksonville Branch of Wreaths Across America. Have you ever seen one of those pictures of a cold wintry day where the ground is covered with snow and all you can see are granite headstones in a National Cemetery decorated with a green wreath sporting a big red bow? Well that's thanks to Wreathes Across America.(Actually it's thanks to Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine who has been making the wreaths since 1992). I called the cemetery here, where my father and mother are buried and asked about it. Like a frog hopping from one lily pad to another to get to the edge of the pond, I made a few more phone calls, and a few emails and found out what I needed to know to make sure the Reynolds headstone will have a wreath this year. That led me to the Ralph "Drem"Terreault, Assistant State Capt, NE Florida Help on the Homefront Rep of the Patriot Guard Riders, who led me to the movie screening.
I have been in the midst of the PGRs before but didn't know about their mission until last night. A few years ago I went to the staging ground of a local fallen soldier whose funeral was being threatened by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Oklahoma. Even though I was one of only a few in a sea of thousands who was not wearing black leather and sitting on a motocycle va-rooming to beat the band, I could feel the energy, the expectation, the dedication to duty, the respect, as if a multitude of patriotic hearts were beating to the rhythm of a Harley's engine. On that day, the "wackos" (as they were called in the movie) did not show. The hearse carrying a flag draped coffin made it to the church without incident, by driving through a corridor of solemn-faced, leather-bedecked motorcyclists and flags whose stripes and stars seemed to salute in acknowledgement of the young man who died for their colors.
As I sat there before the movie started watching a slide show of PGR venues, I did have second thoughts about being there. I mean seriously, was I just asking for more tears? Maybe so, but at the moment I couldn't think of anywhere else I wanted to be. I was in a room where patriotism and love of country meant something. Two rows behind me sat a Medal of Honor winner Robert Ingram. Also in the small theater (with some of the comfiest seats I've ever sat in) there was a representative of Gold Star Dads (whose mission is to support each other in the loss of their sons and daughters) retired service members whose tired faces mirrored the worn leather vests they wore. There were kids and moms and a few other curiosity seekers like Sweetie and I.
Quite frankly, I cannot tell you about the movie. It's something you have to see for yourself. I will tell you that I squeezed my eyes tight and plugged my ears so I wouldn't have to listen to some of the vitriol spewed from the mouths of so-called Christians. And I'll tell you that tears streamed down my face for a good portion of the movie. Yeh, I know, what's new? I can also tell you that I was both embarrassed and proud. Embarrassed to have been a part of the generation who let men and women come home from Vietnam worse than unsung heroes. I was not in the group protesting the war, but I was not in the group that honored their service, either. I was embarrassingly silent. Last night I was made proud by what some of these same men did 30 years later, AFTER they'd been spit on, cussed, denied jobs or lost jobs because of PTSD induced alcoholism and drug abuse, who still to this day warn people NOT to sneak up behind them for what they might do out of instinct.
In August of 2005 when American Legion Riders Chapter 136 from Kansas heard the WBC was going to protest at the funeral of Sgt. John Doles in Chelsea OK, they established a mission statement which "included getting the families' permission and contacting Law Enforcement and Motorcycle groups in Oklahoma. They agreed their ultimate goal was to get veterans involved in every state so that each state could handle the situation internally and not relay on other states to do the job" to limit the intrusion of the WBC. Within weeks the mission statement was refined and a call went out to individual riders and groups across the nation to join and ride with the PGR. Today over 250,000 PGRs give to others what most didn't get when they returned home - love, respect and welcome home. Vietnam Vets who learned not to talk of their time "in country" have found a place to "belong, to comfortably interact with others who were like them and a road back to reason and healing."
I'll say that again. Healing. A little late perhaps, but recovery nonetheless.
I was a different person walking out of the theater than the one who walked in. I can't tell you exactly how or when this happened. But for me, there was another step in healing from my grief. I was reminded that this sadness I carry around with me is something that can't be bottled up, it has to be worked through. In essence I heard strangers say "do what you gotta do to get through it." I also got some insight about my father, the veteran. Why military service was so important to him. Why it's important for me to continue to honor that service, and his almost-OCD behaviour when it came to flag etiquette. And, even though I totally do NOT get the whole war thing, why it's important to be grateful for and respectful of the men and women who go into harm's way every single day so that those of us who are back here on red, while and blue terra ferma can enjoy the freedoms we all too often take for granted. Someone bestowed the title of "greatest generation" on men of my father's era. No doubt they deserve it. But I gotta tell you there are men and women in every generation who become great beyond measure when they put on the uniform of their country. Are their some bad apples? Sure. Are there lots of heros? Sure. I think in the end they deserve a lot more than an evergreen wreath on their grave. They deserve the respect, honor, and remembering the wreathes represent.
Today I'm grateful to the PGR's for the work they do. I'm grateful for the flag that stands out in front of my house. I'm grateful for the people who will take the time to lay over 3500 wreaths on gravesites at Jacksonville National Cemetery next month.
Wishing for a time when every Johnny ever sent to war will come proudly come marching home again.
Patriot Guard Riders, A Film by Ellen Frick