Among the many well-wishers waiting to greet two bus loads of New York National Guard infantry soldiers returning from a year's tour of duty in Afghanistan Oct. 2 were members of the Patriot Guard Riders.
Frank Buckner said the three-year-old organization already boasts 150,000 members from across the country.
He said many of them are veterans, members of other motorcycle organizations and they come together to honor veterans' efforts on behalf of their country.
The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
Mark Lais and his son Alex of Amsterdam hold the Patriot Guard Riders banner welcoming returning National Guard troops to the Gloversville Armory Oct. 2. Mark’s son, Alex’s brother, Douglas, was one of the returning troops after a year’s tour in Afghanistan.
"We want to show respect for the sacrifices veterans have made," Buckner said. "We show up for veterans' events - especially funerals."
Buckner said sometimes those opposed to a particular conflict will choose an event like a veteran's funeral to make a protest, and the riders come to make sure the event is respectful to veterans. He said they aren't confrontational, they simply form a wall of people and bikes to make sure veterans and their families are safe and respected.
Dave Kern of Rochester is the state leader of the group. He said his group gets many heart-felt "thank yous" from families of fallen soldiers.
"We escort the casket and family of a soldier killed in action from the airport to the funeral home," Kern said. We stand with flags during calling hours and we come back for the funeral and church service the next day."
Kern said all missions are at family or military request, and all are done on a volunteer basis.
"Unfortunately, we get called out a lot," Kern said.
He said war protesters may pick a funeral to display their opposition to the war. He said the family members, who already are burdened with their losses, have to endure the signs, shouts and displays of protesters when they are especially fragile.
On the New York state Web site for the PGR, the mission statement lists two objectives:
"To show sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families and their communities.
"Shield the mourning families and their friends from interruptions created by any protester of group of protesters."
Kern said the organization has a fund to aid veterans with special requests of need. He said a committee validates the claim and tries to help with donations made to their non-profit group.
"We don't take any money for our services," Kern said. "Just the opposite. There is no reimbursement to any member for participating in a mission."
At the welcome home celebration Oct. 2, Mark Lais of Amsterdam was holding one end of a banner for the Patriot Guard Riders while his son Alex held the other end.
They were there to welcome Mark's son and Alex's brother, Douglas.
Mark Lais said he was happy to say the U.S. Army had taken good care of his son while he was in Afghanistan.
Douglas' wife Tricia and mother Pam also were there to greet him.
Alex Lais said his brother drove a Humvee in Afghanistan.
Frank Buckner rode his motorcycle to the homecoming as part of the Patriot Guard Riders along with Butch Newell and P.K. Hedden Sr.
"We're just here to support our troops," Buckner said. "We're here out of respect for their sacrifice."
Eric Durr is director of Public Affairs for the New York State Military and Naval Affairs. He said he has been at funerals where the Patriot Guard Riders have appeared and they were quiet and helpful.
"They are one of many community organizations who support our soldiers," Durr said. "Volunteer fire departments and police agencies along with others from the community give support as well."
Sieg Aurich is the assistant state captain for the southern half of the state.
"I joined the group because I love to ride," Aurich said. "However, the PGR is more than that. It has given a purpose and meaning to my riding which is something that is very fulfilling."
Aurich said the mission of the PGR is more than riding, which is born out when riders show up in the snow or rain, when riding isn't an option.
"We go to show respect for the family who has lost a loved one [who] has given of themselves in service, on our behalf, for our country," he said. "It is an honor to be there and the reward of seeing a family that is touched by this service to them is more than compensation for any temporary inconvenience that we might bear."
Kern said there are no meetings or dues, and members need not be veterans or even own motorcycles.
"We see the family made [to feel] secure and comforted from us being there," Kern said. "That's the big bang we get out of being there. That's why we do this."
Kern said there have been times Patriot Guard Riders have even served as pallbearers when needed.
"We appear about every other day somewhere in the state," Kern said. "There are probably 40 missions a day somewhere in the country."
For more information about the Patriot Guard Riders, go to www.pgrny.org.
Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.