A patriot's ride

The Patriot Guard Riders of New York saddle up on a regular basis to support our nation's troops.

When Pat Christensen returned home from duty in the Vietnam War he received no parade, no cheering and no outpouring of support. Rather, protestors spit on him. Others cursed at him. Some simply ignored a man who had just spent eighteen months overseas serving his country. Decades later, Christensen feels no veteran should suffer similar indignation. In 2007, he joined the Patriot Guard Riders.

Photo: Peter Caty
Patriot Guard Riders prepare to ride at the Central New York Veteran's Day Parade Saturday.

Christensen is one of more than 5,200 members of the Patriot Guard Riders of New York. Put simply, the motorcycle club exists to support America’s troops. The riders saddle up and ride in military funeral processions, donning American flags to pay tribute to those who serve their country.

Onondaga County is part of PGRNY’s Region 3, which boasts nearly 700 members. While many riders are veterans, military service is by no means a prerequisite for membership. In fact, the group is open to anyone who would like to join. Their only requirement: bring a flag.

The PGRNY receives requests from families of the fallen to serve as escorts for military funerals. Such was the case with Cpl. Kyle Schneider, the 23-year-old resident of Phoenix, N.Y., who was killed in Afghanistan on June 30. The PGRNY were asked to escort the hearse from Hancock Airport to the funeral home in Baldwinsville. Scott Smoke, a senior ride captain with Region 3, said it was one of the largest missions the local chapter has undertaken.

“We had almost 200 motorcycles,” said Smoke. “The streets were lined with people holding flags and signs supporting this young man’s family. That’s the kind of community spirit we’ve got around here.”

Despite regular missions and a very active membership, the PGRNY is very loosely structured. All missions and communications are organized via their website and email.

“There are no dues, no meetings, no clubhouses and no secret handshake,” Smoke said. “We don’t even care whether you have a bike. Just show up, show respect and bring a flag.”

The Patriot Guard Riders are a national organization with over 250,000 members. Formed in 2005, the Riders initially rode to funerals of soldiers killed in action to counter protests by the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. While their mission statement still centers around shielding families from protestors, the group has expanded well beyond the scope of the radical Westboro Church.

“We don’t discuss those protestors by name,” said Christensen, now a ride captain in New York’s Region 3 chapter. “We give them no credence because they don’t have much impact on us here. They’re the reason the Guard started, but we’ve grown well beyond that.”

Christensen is right. As Fred Phelps & Co. become an obscure thing of the past, the PGR continues to expand and gain support. They attend funerals of all veterans, from WWII, to Korea, to Vietnam, as well as servicemen and women who never toured overseas. The group attends welcome home ceremonies for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and is invited to participate in countless memorial services and parades.

Last year, the Riders escorted a burial procession for the remains of an unknown Civil War soldier.

A tourist at Antietam stumbled upon a set of bones in 2008, which were later determined to be those of a Union Civil War soldier from New York. PGR chapters from across the East Coast assembled and escorted the unknown soldier’s remains from Antietam to a military museum in Saratoga, N.Y. Smoke was among the members of the PGRNY who joined the effort.

“We stood guard outside the museum along with 30 or 40 living history actors in full period garb from the Civil War era,” Smoke said. “He was a veteran, and every veteran deserves to be honored.”

Those interested in joining the Patriot Guard Riders are encouraged to visit the national website at www.patriotguard.org and sign up.

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