Most of us associate the Patriot Guard Riders with the roar of motorcycles.
The veterans at the Eagle’s Nest Community Living Center are familiar with a different calling card: a gentle tapping at their doorway, followed by a “Hello?” from a woman with a seraphic grin and a cascade of wavy red hair.
“Do you want any ice cream?” asks Anne O’Dea.
O’Dea, whose badge-emblazoned vest identifies her as “Annie-O,” offers a tray of cups filled with vanilla, chocolate and lime sherbet. (The medical personnel at this Veterans Affairs assisted living center in Decatur recently ruled out butter pecan because of choking dangers.)
It’s a busy time of year for the Patriot Guard Riders. Many will depart for Washington, D.C., for Memorial Day ceremonies there, or will be attending the annual Memorial Day observation in Lawrenceville at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.
The ice cream visits are a quieter aspect of their work — and reflect the group’s evolving role.
O’Dea’s recipients are elderly, and they are dealing with disability, or dementia, or both, which is why they live full time at Eagle’s Nest. Some have no family, and receive few visitors. But they have Annie-O.
Her Saturday mission was greeted with glad cries by one robust veteran with a Santa Claus physique and an oxygen tube in his nose.
“It makes me feel good just to see the smile on your face,” said the gray-haired veteran as he turned his wheelchair toward the open door. He accepted a cup of vanilla ice cream and enthused, “Thank you, ice cream girl!”
Back out in the hallway, O’Dea, 55, confided, “I look forward to coming here because they always lift me up. These are my heroes.”
On any given day, there is no shortage of pomp, heraldry and the full-throated song of the Harley-Davidson, with a Patriot in the saddle.
It’s not just holidays such as Memorial Day that keep the Patriot Guard Riders busy. There are many other events where their presence is requested. On a recent Saturday, the Georgia chapter listed on its website eight different “missions,” including an honor flight in Macon, a patriotic convoy in Rabun Gap, services for a police officer killed in the line of duty in Savannah and a veteran’s funeral in Warner Robins.
(Honor flights take older veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the war memorials. The Patriot Guard offers escorts to and from airports for those flights.)
The Patriot Guard is nonprofit and all volunteer, said Georgia state captain Don “Big Don” Wilson, adding that there are 300,000 members nationwide and about 5,000 in Georgia. Members needn’t have served in the military and need not ride a motorcycle. “The only requirement is RESPECT!” says the guard’s website.
Perhaps 40 motorcycle-riding members of the guard attended the Savannah services for Kelvin Ansari, a 10-year veteran of the Savannah Police Department, who was shot and killed while responding to a robbery on May 11.
“The support from the community was outstanding,” said Greg “LT” Ernst, who was the “ride captain” for that event and is also a lieutenant with the Savannah Police Department. He estimated at least 1,000 people lined the road between the church and the burial ground, standing to pay their respects to Ansari.
Ernst explained that the guard has expanded its mission to include offering tribute to firefighters, police officers and other public safety personnel who put their lives on the line.
Ansari, born in Albany, was a veteran as well as a police officer. During a 21-year Army career, he served in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He leaves behind a wife, four sons and two daughters.
The guard was founded in 2005 when a fringe group called the Westboro Baptist Church began targeting the funerals of military personnel to stage what they call protests. The Westboro group used those funerals as an opportunity to claim that God is punishing the U.S. because of its tolerance for homosexuality. Members would display signs offering such repellent messages as “Thank God for dead soldiers” and preach at the mourners.
The Patriot Guard Riders, at the request of family members, began placing themselves between the Westboro protesters and the mourners, sometimes singing hymns or revving their engines to drown out the Westboro taunts. “I was in awe of how we were able to neutralize those people, how we were able to protect the family,” said Ernst.
Wilson said, “We offer anything we can do to soften the impact of the loss on these families. We let them know that somebody respects their veteran, and the sacrifices they’re willing to give and have given to our country.”
Ernst said he’s only been to one funeral that drew Westboro provocateurs, and they were far enough away from the service so that they were inaudible. “It’s very rare that they do show up,” he said. “We are always ready to put ourselves in between them and the families.”
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have become less active, and deaths overseas have waned, the guard has turned its attention to the funerals of older veterans from previous conflicts. Guard members also escort veterans taking “honor flights” to Washington, D.C., raise money to help veterans pay bills and even help renovate residences to provide greater access for paraplegic soldiers.
Such “homefront” missions also include ice cream “socials.”
“We talk to them. We let them know that we love them,” said Pam Long, who is the coordinator of the “Help on the Homefront” initiative of the Georgia chapter of the Patriot Guard. The guard has been visiting Decatur’s Eagle’s Nest for seven years, and the residents have come to anticipate their arrival once a month. “It’s very important that we go down there on a regular basis,” said Long, “‘cause they look for us.”
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