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Patriot Guard Riders

You don’t expect much from the airport shuttle, not from any airport shuttle. A timely arrival at the airport is all that is promised and all that you need. So when you hear something of an inspiration en route, as I did last month, it stays with you.

Dennis with his bike, christened “POWMIA,” at a Gilroy parade of the Patriot Guard Riders. The bike is a Kawasaki 2007 Vulcan VN 2000cc engine Classic LT.

Dennis first explained why he had a part-time job driving the shuttle. He had retired not long ago after 20-something years driving tour buses all over the United States and much of Canada. His children were grown, the youngest had completed college, and he was set, except for one little thing: his “motorcycle habit.” That’s the phrase he used, and I had an immediate picture of him on his Harley on Sunday afternoons winding through the Santa Cruz mountains. Yep, that was a hobby that was worth a part-time job to support.

But there was more to the story. Dennis did enjoy his Sunday afternoon sorties, no doubt about it, but what drove him on his motorcycle, what drove him to spend $311 for a new rear tire every 9,000 miles (both the numbers were his), was something a lot more serious.

Dennis with his wife and granddaughter at the Gilroy parade. Naturally enough, his T-shirt reads “Support Our Troops.” Dennis and his wife have a son in Special Forces, who can’t even tell them what country he is in. They write to him at a military PO Box. That’s got to be hard for him and his wife.

Dennis is a ride captain for the Patriot Guard Riders. Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it, in a way? The phrase carries echoes of those phony patriots who tell us all what to do to justify their self-centered politics. No, Dennis is a whole different kind of patriot, right from the heart, all about looking after other people, and pretty damn good at it.

When Dennis returned from Vietnam in 1967, he did what he had to do, found a job, married, had children: in short, he lived a good life. He gave up his “motorcycle habit” to raise his children (it’s an expensive hobby), and then took it back up a couple of years after his daughter graduated college.

He joined the Patriot Guard Riders (http://www.patriotguard.org/). They ride alongside and escort the young men and women who have completed their tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, and sometimes, so sadly, those who never did finish in one piece. The Patriot Guard Riders escort them home or to their final resting place.

He told me of one particular trip when they rode shotgun for a busload of returnees on their way from the huge US Marine base at Camp Pendleton, down by San Diego, to Alameda Naval Air Station across the Bay from San Francisco. These were young people returning home to the Bay Area, and they would be meeting their families again, finally, in Alameda, after how long apart?

Dennis didn’t send me any photos of one of his escort missions, and so I looked online to get a flavor of them. Here in 2009 Patriot Guard Riders escort the motorcade of Individual Augmentees (military people, in this case sailors, on their way to a posting) to a welcome. To get a more complete picture of Dennis’s convoys, add a few hundred bikes and riders!

This was a bus ride that none of those returning soldiers would ever forget. The Patriot Guard Riders turned out in force for them. There were 646 big bikes or more escorting that bus the 400 plus miles from Camp Pendleton to Alameda. Some dropped out and others joined in, but there were 646 or more big bikes for the entire route home of these returnees.

Think about that for a moment.
We’ve all seen those groups of bikes out for a Sunday afternoon ride in a group, and we’ve all been impressed by the roar of 20 Harleys gliding by. Think about 646 big bikes doing the same. Dennis said that they rode two abreast at two second intervals. Any less and they were too close, any more and people cut between them. That’s a no-no. They haven’t joined up 646 strong in honor of our returning heroes in order to be interrupted by grandpa on a visit to the grocery store. I did the math: 323 times two seconds is over ten minutes. At 60 mph, that’s a total of ten miles of bikes in front of and behind the bus. That is one hell of an escort!

According to a Patriot Guard Riders blog, where I found this photo, it shows Patriot Guard Riders attending a military burial in Liberal, Kansas in response to a scheduled appearance by the Westboro Baptist Church in May 2006. The blog is at: http://pgrnyvrp.wordpress.com/2011/04/07/

I peppered him with questions, and Dennis explained more. They were able to stay together for ten minutes of drive-by on busy freeways because law enforcement agencies allow them to. They not only allow them to, they help the convoys, for example by blocking freeway entrances until the whole escorted convoy has passed by.

Other local law enforcement agencies are informed about the convoy, and set themselves up on bridges over the freeway: police officers, firefighters, paramedics, all waving to the returning soldiers (the civilians) or saluting them. Groups of bikes take turns to ride up alongside the bus, on both sides, and then peel off while others ride on up alongside. Are you getting goosebumps yet?!

Hear that roar! Dennis said that he was sure that the families waiting in the Alameda Naval Air Station could hear their loved ones coming from a mile away, droning and roaring closer and closer as hundreds of big bikes turned off the freeway with the bus and finished their long ride escorting the men and women home.

This shot appeared in the Stamford Advocate, with the following credit: “The Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle group precedes the casket carrying the remains of Staff Sgt. Derek Farley down Routes 9 and 20 in Schodack on August 25, 2010. (Skip Dickstein/Times Union) Photo: Skip Dickstein.” I bet that this photograph made Staff Sgt Farley’s family and friends feel about as good as anything could have made them feel.

Welcome home, soldiers!

Dennis is a Vietnam vet. He remembered the weird way he was welcomed home after his tour of duty. I remember those times too, the moral ambiguity of that far away war, the political passion that interfered with everyone’s appreciation, our appreciation, of the sacrifices that our young men (just men then) were making. It was a terrible time to be a soldier, fighting for a native land that saw you as a pawn in somebody else’s game, a victim or a perpetrator in the country’s own internal struggles, when it saw you at all. Dennis said simply that he did not feel much of a welcome when he returned home.

Here’s Dennis with a World War II veteran during Veterans Appreciation Day this year in Dixon CA. He told me that 200 big bikes showed their appreciation that day.

Rather than become embittered, as did so many back then, Dennis has fixed the problem. He and thousands like him in the Patriot Guard Riders (he says that there are now over 215,000 strong, but not all ride) now assure the young men and women returning from these terrible wars (because all wars are terrible on some level) that they return with honor, knowing how much their country appreciates what they have done for us. I never even knew that any of this was happening. This short shuttle ride was an inspiration, an eye-opener.

Way to go Dennis! You’re the man!

Postscript from 2013: here’s a video example of what Dennis and the Patriot Guard Riders do, taken from the Northern California Patriot Guard Riders web site. Worth exploring!