Freezing rain, fog or shine, bikers have been showing up at military funerals throughout the nation, comforting the mourning with tiny teddy bears and roaring their Harley engines in respect.
Known as the Patriot Guard Riders, this motorcycle brigade with an affinity for leather and facial hair is different than any other honor guard.
“A lot of us are Vietnam veterans and I think it stems back to those war days,” rider Gary “Too Tall” David, 66, said. The former police chief of Milton-Freewater got drafted for the war but, at six foot seven, was told he was too tall to be a soldier.
David said the Patriot Guard makes him feel like he’s doing a service for the soldiers he never got to stand with.
“They were treated horribly when they returned. A lot of them felt they were rebels.”
Started in response to protests of military funerals by the radical Westboro Baptist Church, the group shows up only when invited to military events — usually funerals — and forms a flag line.
There have been plenty of run-ins with Westboro Baptist since the group started seven years ago, including in the Pacific Northwest. At a soldier’s funeral in Richland, Wash., rider Cecil Baldwin, 72, came face-to-face with the group sporting signs stating “Pray for more dead soldiers,” and “Thank God for IEDs.”
“There was a couple hundred of us there,” Baldwin, a veteran, said. “They used us as buffers for the family and we revved up our engines so loud we drowned them out.”
Starting as a response to the vitriol of Westboro Baptist, the organization has taken a life of its own. There are no requirements to be one of the 230,000 Patriot Guard Riders. No need to be a veteran; no need to ride a motorcycle.
“Some people show up in cages to events,” said regional captain Rod Runyon, who is also Wasco County commissioner. “Cages” is biker-speak for cars. “There are no strings attached. It’s all about self-motivation. We don’t take roll but we’re always happy to have you.”
Candi Arkell, 47, of Pendleton joined the riders two years ago after watching a documentary on Patriot Guard Riders. She’s now the sole woman in the Eastern Oregon bunch, which doesn’t bother her one bit.
“When I rode the first time, I took off my helmet and they went, ‘Huh?’” said Arkell, a veteran herself. “It’s kind of like hanging out with your brother and his friends. It’s not like I’m some overzealous patriot either. We’re all so different.”
In addition to their respect for the military, the cast of characters who make up Eastern Oregon’s Patriot Guard Riders show up for the camaraderie.
As they thaw out in Baldwin’s living room outside Hermiston, rider Bill “Gramps” Myers, 78, tells of how “Too Tall” once convinced everyone that “Gramps” was actually his dad, and there are howls of hardy laughter as they reminisce about trips to Sturgis, renowned as a biker’s mecca.
“It’s not about the destination,” David said of traveling on a motorcycle. “It’s about the sights, the smells, the bugs in your teeth.”
While there are at least a dozen dedicated riders in Umatilla and Morrow counties, the area currently lacks a “ride captain” to act as an organizer of the bunch for the estimated 20 events per year.
But Runyon said even without a ride captain, the Eastern Oregon riders always manage to get the family together.
On Saturday, the Eastern Oregon bikers are taking toys to children at Good Shepherd hospital in the wintry weather beginning December.
“See ya Saturday, dad,” David coughed as he headed to leave on his bike.
“Buzz off, son,” Myers whizzed back.
If interested in participating in a Patriot Guard event, contact Runyon at Reckless.firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-993-6413.
Contact Natalie Wheeler at email@example.com or 541-564-4547.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.