By Bruce Gentile

The Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) originated in July 2005, when a group of Kansas American Legion riders planned to ride their motorcycles to the funerals of fallen heroes for the sole purpose of showing respect and providing support to the families of the fallen. Their decision came about because many of the families were being harassed by Westboro Baptist Church protesters.

From that small beginning in Kansas, the PGR soon gained support from other motorcycle groups across the United States.

As time went on, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued, more funerals were disrupted by protestors. The result was PGR receiving invitations to more funerals.

PGR is not a counter-protest organization, but rather a diverse union of riders from across the nation. Besides motorcycles, we all have one thing in common. We respect those who risk their lives for America’s freedom and security including fallen troops, first responders and honorably discharged veterans.

Our primary mission is to attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family. We have two objectives with each mission we undertake. The first is to show our sincere respect for the fallen, their families and their communities. The second is to shield the mourning family and friends from protesters’ interruptions. We accomplish the latter through strictly legal and nonviolent means.

I have been a member of the Patriot Guard since 2007 and am the assistant state captain in charge of the PGR Arlington National Cemetery Team. When I first joined, I was still working and could only attend missions occasionally.

I live in the Washington metropolitan area, so I began attending funerals in Arlington National Cemetery. In the beginning, I was staggered by the number of burials there each day. After retiring in 2008, I had the freedom to attend many more missions—sometimes two or three in a day.

I will always remember my first mission. I had no idea what to expect, but I found the other riders shared many of my beliefs. Most were veterans themselves. At the end of that particular service, as the PGR stood at attention nearby, the family walked up to us to thank us for being there. They were crying and emotionally drained and I still remember the emotions I felt as I shook their hands. I had no way of knowing how challenging that mission would turn out to be.

Photo credit USO photo by Samantha L. Quigley

Bruce Gentile has been a member of the Patriot Guard Riders since 2007 and is the assistant state captain in charge of the PGR Arlington National Cemetery Team.

Over the past seven years, I have attended hundreds of missions, not only at Arlington, but at other local cemeteries throughout Washington, Maryland and Virginia. Each one is different. There is always a feeling of great satisfaction after a mission ends, and most end without protesters interrupting. Nevertheless, the family is grateful we are there to honor their loved one.

I’ve often noticed the riders are very quiet as we walk back to our bikes.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ending, the number of missions for those killed in action have dropped dramatically—a good thing to be sure.

Although the protesters—WBC in particular—seem to be fading from the limelight, PGR still has a vital mission to complete on behalf of other generations of veterans. We will continue our mission to honor veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam—my generation—and other conflicts too numerous to list.

As an Air Force veteran, I feel a certain connection to the men and women serving in our nation’s armed forces, like we are kindred spirits.

In the Patriot Guard mission statement there is a paragraph that strikes me as a spot-on summary of how we all feel when we do a mission.

“To those of you who are currently serving and fighting for the freedoms of others, at home and abroad, please know that we are backing you. We honor and support you with every mission we carry out, and we are praying for a safe return home for all.”

I cannot count the number of times an active-duty soldier, sailor, airman or Marine has come up to us after a mission and thanked us for our service—and for watching his or her back. They know we have their backs and their families’ as well.

In August 2011, the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter. All 37 personnel on board—22 Navy SEALs, three Air Force Special Operations Command airmen, five U.S. soldiers and seven Afghan commandos were killed, along with a U.S. military working dog.

I was one of several PGR ride captains attending the interment of 13 members of the SEAL team. It was the largest funeral I had ever attended. Standing silently in formation with other PGR members, I could not help but notice many of the riders standing beside me were wiping their eyes. The sight of those 13 coffins side by side was truly an emotional moment that I will never forget.

Those of us on the Arlington National Cemetery Team of the PGR have watched the rows of headstones in Section 60—the section where most of those killed in action during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom are buried—increase in size over the years.

Sadly, one day it will be full.

– Bruce Gentile is the assistant state captain in charge of the Patriot Guard Riders Arlington National Cemetery Team.