When Air Force veteran Mark Hanley first rode with the Patriot Guard Riders in Florida as they led a fallen service member to a final resting place, the journey made a profound impact on his life.
At that moment, he knew it was something that he wanted to continue doing.
“It's a way to honor and respect veterans for their sacrifices,” said Hanley, who has established a Yuma chapter of Patriot Guard Riders and is recruiting members. “It's a large demonstration of support.”
Hanley said although the group is still small, he and other members are trying to get the word out in the community so families know there is a national chapter here in Yuma and can request their services. He added that families have to request their presence, saying they just don't show up.
“If people don't know about us, they don't call. That is why it is important to get the word out. We don't scan the obituaries. We don't call the families.”
While the Patriot Guard Riders will also participate in memorial services for police officers, firefighters and other first responders, they will additionally take part in patriotic ceremonies for returning or departing military units.
However, Hanley said, they usually draw the most riders for funerals for service members and veterans. Those funerals, he said, are called “missions” and can attract motorcyclists from all over the region.
For missions here in Yuma, Hanley said the local chapter will be able to draw motorcyclists from chapters in San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson.
Hanley said there are a number of things Patriot Guard Riders can do at these services, such as riding with the family and escorting the hearse from the funeral parlor to the cemetery. Riders will also stand in a flag line, holding huge American flags on poles, along the entrance to the cemetery and along the route.
“It's up to the family. Whatever they want us to do. I have been in processions where there were 100 bikes flying flags behind the hearse going down the street. It's pretty impressive.”
The national organization was formed in 2005 in response to protests taking place by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., at funeral services for military persons killed in action. The Patriot Guard forms a barrier between the protesters and the families at funerals so the protesters can't disrupt the service.
Hanley said members don't need to be a veteran or even own a motorcycle to join the Yuma chapter of the Patriot Guard. The only requirement is showing “unwavering respect” for those who risk their lives for the country.
While all of the missions are meaningful, Hanley is most touched personally by ones for Vietnam veterans because they didn't receive the welcome home ceremonies military members get today. Many of them, he said, came home from war to civilian protests.
“They certainly didn't get the warm welcome home that I received.”
In sharing some of his experiences on missions, Hanley said he attended one funeral for a World War II veteran last year in Casa Grande where there were only two family members in attendance and everyone else was a Patriot Guard Rider.
In another emotional experience, Hanley said, he was at the funeral of a female Marine where there were no pallbearers, so a Guard Rider, who was a retired Marine colonel, asked some of his fellow riders to step in and carry the casket.
Hanley, who first heard about the Patriot Guard Riders while he was serving a deployment to Iraq, said anyone who wants to join the Yuma chapter can call him directly at 304-9437, or go to the state website at standtallstandpoud.org or the national website at patriotguard.org.
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854. Find him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/YSJamesGilbert or on Twitter @YSJamesGilbert.