On a mission
Patriot Guard rallies to show respect for nation’s fallen heroes
A year and a half ago, the Patriot Guard didn't exist.
Today, the mission -- started by American Legion members in Mulvane -- is at least 60,000 members strong.
By now, most people have seen the motorcyclists gathered at military funerals. They wave flags as they stand along funeral procession routes. They participate in funeral processions -- riding with flags streaming behind their motorcycles. And when members of Rev. Fred Phelps' Topeka Westboro Baptist Church picket military funerals, the Patriot Guard forms an avenue of flags or raises a giant tarp to block the family's view of the protestors.
"We will do whatever it takes to shield the family," said Larry Levindofske.
Levindofske, second vice commander of American Legion Post 400 in Topeka, is a Kansas Patriot Guard ride captain and the director of American Legion Riders Post 400.
Levindofske stressed that the Patriot Guard isn't a counter protest group.
"We do not hold up signs, we hold our American symbol -- the flag. That is all," Levindofske said.
It's been a year since Kelly Frantz first met up with the Patriot Guard.
The occasion -- her husband's military funeral in Tonganoxie.
Cpl. Lucas Frantz was killed by sniper fire Oct. 17, 2005, in Baghdad. He died on his 22nd birthday.
Because he was a former Tonganoxie High School football player, Frantz's football jersey was retired during an Oct. 21, 2005, home game.
Days later, his funeral was held at Tonganoxie's VFW Memorial Park.
At both events, members of the Topeka church picketed. They carried signs and stomped and spat on the American flag.
Kelly Frantz said Monday the Patriot Guard helped her deal with the situation.
"Honestly, without them there I don't know what I would have done," Frantz said. "It was horrible, knowing that the Phelpses were going to be there.
"My heart was broken that they were going to be there. It was the last thing I would ever want. Lucas didn't deserve it."
The Patriot Guard's presence eased her stress.
"They were awesome," Frantz said. "They made it so we could actually have our mourning period. They allowed us to do what we were supposed to be able to do that day."
Terry Houck, a Vietnam veteran from Mulvane's American Legion Post 136, said the idea started with his wife, Carol Houck. In August 2005, Carol was appalled that the Topeka church group had picketed a military funeral in Oklahoma.
She told her husband, who talked to members of Kansas American Legion Riders Post 136, Mulvane. The group decided to start the Patriot Guard, through which they would encourage other motorcycle groups and individuals to unite to show respect for fallen soldiers.
Houck stressed that the Patriot Guard isn't a club. Rather, he said, it's a "mission."
"The reason you sign up and join is so you can get the e-mails or alerts for the missions," Houck said. "Because if you don't join it's hard to find information on it."
The Patriot Guard's first mission was Oct. 11, 2005, in Chelsea, Okla., with 43 riders. And its second mission, with about 190 Patriot Guard riders, was Oct. 27, 2005, in Tonganoxie, for Cpl. Lucas Frantz.
During the Patriot Guard's early months, they called ahead, asking the family's permission to attend.
"Anymore, we don't even have to call them, they call us," Houck said. "They want us to be there."
The Patriot Guard is a diverse group of people. Veterans from all wars participate -- men and women.
"We have World War II veterans that go in their four-wheel vehicles," Houck said.
The Patriot Guard has no dues. There's no requirement that members have military ties. Nor must they ride motorcycles.
"You don't have to have a leather vest," said
Levindofske. "We've got people in business suits, we've got people taking their lunch breaks coming out for an hour to carry a flag."
Ernie Miller, a Vietnam veteran whose mother, Eleanor McKee, lives in Tonganoxie, recently traveled to a military funeral in Hiawatha with the Patriot Guard. Weeks later, Miller finds it difficult to talk about the experience.
"We get all emotional," Miller said, barely able to speak.
But Patriot Guard is about more than providing support during funerals. Patriot Guard also welcomes soldiers home and attends special events.
While the Patriot Guard was started to show respect and help grieving families heal, another benefit has developed.
It's a healing process for those who participate in Patriot Guard missions.
With their military service behind them, they have much in common. Friendships grow stronger.
"It's like we're all kind of brothers now," Miller said.
After a year in action, the Patriot Guard has a strong presence. There's a national chapter, along with various state chapters. Kansas alone has more than 1,800 Patriot Guard members.
That's none too many, Houck said, considering funerals are held throughout the state and the Patriot Guard is determined to be a presence at all of them. Even so, they try to limit mission travel to a 400-mile round trip.
"All these soldiers are being sent home in body bags, being killed and sent home pretty rapidly these last few months," Houck said. "We just want to be there to help them get the respect they deserve."
While Houck said the military gives "200 percent" in showing respect and support at a funeral, protestors and picketers detract from the solemnity of the occasion.
"I wish they would stop. I don't want to go to any more funerals with the reason of him being there," Houck said of the Phelps' group. "But we're going to keep going to them even if he stops going because now that we've started this we've got to see it to the end."
Mid-morning Thursday, temperatures hovered in the low 30s. Houck helped organize a crowd of motorcyclists gathered in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Wellington.
It was a beautiful autumn morning -- clear and crisp with leaves shimmering on trees. But Houck wasn't out to sightsee.
He was on a mission -- to help lead the Patriot Guard to the military funeral of U.S. Army Sgt. Willsun Mock, a 23-year-old killed Oct. 22 in Baghdad when a bomb exploded near his combat vehicle.
Houck, Kansas Patriot Guard's state captain, works closely with co-captains -- Cregg Hansen, Derby, and Greg Hansen, Andover.
Houck's wife, Carol, is key to the missions as well. If she's not riding behind her husband, she's driving a truck loaded with 200 3-by 5-foot flags attached to 10-foot poles.
These are the flags held along the procession routes, and when necessary, held in front of the picketers to block them from the view of families whose loved one has died.
"It makes a nice statement to have that many American flags," Houck said. "Plus all the flags we have on our motorcycles."
Houck said military funerals and community support go hand-in-hand.
For instance last week's funeral service was in Wellington, and the burial in Harper. Crowds greeted the procession.
"I think every farmer and rancher in the community and the schools were out and they were lining both sides of the street," Houck said. "That's how they show their sincere condolences to this family that's passing by. It's very solemn. It's one of the most reverent things I've every been involved in."
And it's been healing.
For instance, Houck said, he lost friends while serving in Vietnam. But he was unable to attend their funerals because he was still in Vietnam.
"It's a healing process, not just for Vietnam veterans, but for any of the veterans. ... It allows you to go to the funerals and show our respect for what this man did for your country," Houck said. "To be there for a fallen soldier that you couldn't be there for back in your day."
Even in states where the Topeka church has not picketed military funerals, the Patriot Guard has caught on.
"In July or August this year it really took off," Houck said. "People just want to show that they're there, they want to be there for these people that are dying for the country and the flag."
And that's something Kelly Frantz, who caught a quick glimpse of the Topeka protestors at her husband's funeral, will never forget.
"I saw the tarp and the people behind it, I heard them, it was horrible," Frantz said.
But she saw and heard far more from the Patriot Guard. And she would see the Patriot Guard -- and their flags -- again as she took her final ride with her late husband.
"I saw them on Fourth Street -- it was wonderful." Frantz said of the funeral procession from the park to the cemetery. "Their motorcycles were lining both sides of Fourth Street. They were holding flags and saluting as we drove by."
And that, said Houck, is what the Patriot Guard has evolved into.
"We're part of the service," Houck said. "We're not there as protestors or counter protestors. We're invited guests. We show up and park our motorcycles along the street. We bring our flag truck in with the big flags and we set them up and we don't allow the protestors to send their hateful messages to the family."
Last week, the Topeka church sent two groups of picketers to the military funeral of Willsun Mock, in Wellington and Harper.
"They had two squads of them, one at the church service, the other at the cemetery," Houck said, his voice trailing off as he talked about the deaths and injuries from war -- the ultimate sacrifices made by men and women who serve this country.
"I don't understand why they do it," Houck said of the Topeka Westboro Baptist church members who picket at military funerals. "But they do."