Their image has become almost synonymous with military burials in Kansas: men and women, dressed in leather vests and bandanas, straddling Harley Davidsons and riding into small towns across the state. Their mission is simple: stand guard against a religious group that protests not only the war on terror, but the Americans fighting it and families who have lost loved ones in the conflict.
The riders form an impenetrable line around the funeral and reverently rev their engines to drown out the sounds of protesters. The Kansas Patriot Guard has stood watch at more than 60 funerals during the past three years. Moreover, the Guard has made an impact on those families it has supported.
"God bless each of you for sacrificing your time for such a noble cause," reads one thank-you note to the Guard. "The funeral of my son and the graveside service were all very memorable, due in large part to your efforts. I really don't have words to convey the thankfulness in my heart for all you have done."
Another: "It is nice to know that there are people out there willing to sacrifice their time to ensure that the sanctity of memorials and funerals is protected from people who spew a message of hate." In fact, the Kansas Patriot Guard's efforts earned members the mantle of 2006 Kansans of the Year, awarded by the Topeka Capital-Journal.
"We don't do this because we want recognition," says Legionnaire Terry "Darkhorse" Houck, one of the Patriot Guard's founding members. "This is something that we, as veterans, need to do. These men and women paid the ultimate price in the service of their country. They deserve a ceremony befitting of a hero, and so do their families."
Houck says the Patriot Guard wants to make sure that nothing gets in the way of a burial with military honors. "That's our mission, and we're resolved to carry it out as long as necessary," he says. "It's easy to stand up for the fallen."
The Beginning. In July 2005, Terry's wife, Carol, read an article in the newspaper that deeply disturbed her. Members of the Westboro, Kan., Baptist Church had disrupted the funeral of Army Spc. Jared Hartley in Newkirk, Okla., by showing up to demonstrate against what they consider to be a depraved United States.
After watching the group's protest on TV, Carol spoke with Terry about the possibility of showing up themselves at military funerals to pay their respects to fallen soldiers and their families. Terry took the idea to other American Legion Riders at Post 136 in Mulvane, Kan., and the seed for the Kansas Patriot Guard was planted.
Riders appointed a committee that included Houck, Cregg "Bronco6" Hansen, Steve "McDaddy" McDonald and Bill "Wild Bill" Logan to establish the group's mission, procedures and guidelines. Dennis "Tatonka" Scuffham, Greg "Ebay" Hansen, Richard "Stretch" Strothman and Doug "Grey Eagle" Lehman joined in.
The Kansas Patriot Guard's first mission was in Chelsea, Okla., at the funeral of Sgt. John Doles. Westboro Baptist members had planned a protest, and the Guard wanted to keep the church from interfering, but there was the matter of getting permission from the family.
"I dialed the number, all except the last number - I couldn't dial it," Terry recalls. "I thought, ‘What do you say?' What do you say when you call somebody and try to explain this to them? One night, I finally got up enough nerve to call and talk to the mom and the dad. Naturally, they're making arrangements for their son's funeral.
"Someone in the family answered the phone, a woman, and she asked, ‘Who are you with, now?' I said I was with the Kansas American Legion Riders, and that we had heard about Sgt. Dole being killed and would like to attend the funeral, if possible."
"She asked, ‘Why do you want to do that?' I told her I didn't know how this was going to sound, but there were going to be some church groups coming to the funeral to picket. She said, ‘You've got to be kidding me.'"
Terry ended up talking to Dole's father and received an invitation to the funeral. Then a call went out to the Chelsea chief of police.
"He told me not to come," Terry says. "‘We don't want your kind here.'"
"They wouldn't let us in town for 30 minutes," Cregg Hansen adds.
Houck talked with the police chief and explained the Riders' mission. After some debate, the chief gave the group permission to attend.
"They had, like, 45 (law-enforcement officials) there," Terry said. "They even had a sniper. We're down there, and (the chief) took my name and my Social Security number, my address. I'd given them Cregg Hansen's name and number. (The chief) told me, ‘I want you to know that if something goes bad here, you and Cregg Hansen are going to be the first ones arrested.'"
Nothing went bad.
Practice Makes Perfect. After more than 60 missions, the Kansas Patriot Guard has its role down to a science, though protecting funerals is by no means simple. In addition to making and maintaining contact with family members of a fallen servicemember, Houck and/or the ride captain reach out to the military casualty assistance officer and local law-enforcement officials in advance.
The Riders then scout the church and cemetery to choose and secure a staging area.
The ride captain works with local law enforcement to come up with a safe procession route and, if requested, will arrange and provide escort for the fallen servicemember from the airport to the funeral home.
The captain then creates a ride itinerary, posts it on the Guard's Web site, and e-mails it to members. On the day of the funeral, the Guard arrives 90 minutes early. Usually the funeral procession is led by law-enforcement officials. Since that first mission, the relationship between the Guard and local police has improved. "They respect what we do," Houck said. "We've had state troopers volunteer to get us there. They're doing it on their own."
From meeting with casualty assistance officers to scouting the funeral site, a mission often requires 20 to 30 hours from Guard members. In addition, driving motorcycles on the highway is fraught with risk.
"It's a very dangerous mission," Houck said. "We've had a couple of people get hurt. But we stress safety. Any mission we're involved with - either 100 percent or just a little - we tend to kind of take over, because we've got our name out there. We have people who will remove you from the mission if you don't follow orders."
Neither time nor weather prevents the Kansas Patriot Guard from showing up at a military funeral.
"We've left as early as 4 in the morning when it's been 12 degrees," Terry said.
Other Patriot Guards are springing up around the country. Hansen used his Legion Riders contacts to spread the word about the program, saying it got a good start because original Patriot Guard members were also Legionnaires. "Having The American Legion name there, behind what we were doing at the beginning, helped a lot," he said.
And it keeps growing. "We've had people want to start a Legion Rider chapter because they want to be a part of the Patriot Guard," Cregg said.
Safeguarding the sanctity of military funerals remains the Guard's priority, even if Westboro Baptist Church ceases its protests.
"There's going to be a Patriot Guard when they're all gone," Cregg said. "As long as this war's going on, we'll be there."
Steve Brooks is senior editor of The American Legion Magazine.