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Patriot Guard allows vets to continue active duty

His knuckles whitened, gripping the flagpole tighter as the vans approached. The murmur spread, leather-clad bikers whispering the warning: “The uglies are here.”

The “uglies,” Westboro Baptist Church protesters, carried signs reading, “God hates your tears,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”

Sioux Center resident Bob Helwig stood with about 200 other Patriot Guard Riders, lining the entrance to the funeral for Sgt. Joshua Ford in Pender, NE.

Helwig, a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran, responded as planned. In unison, riders turned their backs to the most infamous of modern-day religious protesting groups. Then the colors held by the Patriot Guard Riders triumphed in what Helwig described as an unforgettable scene.

“The air was dead still, and our flags were just hanging,” he said. “The family passed through, and suddenly the air picked up, and the flags whipped out and completely blocked the protesters. It gave me goose bumps. We know who’s on our side.”

The Patriot Guard Riders formed on Oct. 18, 2005, with one purpose: To protect families like the Fords from groups protesting soldiers’ funerals. Since then, 54,021 have joined their cause, riding nationwide, meeting members along the way, filling interstates and back roads across America with Harleys and flags.

The national organization’s mission matches that of many N’West Iowans.

“The Patriot Guard covers both things in my life — motorcycles and patriotism,” Helwig said.

As a member of the American Legion Riders, a group of veterans promoting patriotism, Helwig already combined his two passions. But then he learned of the Westboro Baptist protesters.

“When I went to ’Nam, I remember my mom crying, and that broke my heart. But I came back. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to lose a son or daughter and have people disrespect them in such a way,” he said. “As kids, we’d visit our grandmother’s grave, and we’d get admonished if we stepped on a grave. That was disrespectful, and my parents believed in preserving respect. That’s what I feel we’re doing here.”

A friend told him about the Patriot Guard Riders’ Web site, and Helwig and his friend both joined.

“The hardest thing is picking your nickname. That doesn’t mean you’re going to have an easy time at the funerals,” he said.

Since enlisting on May 9, Helwig’s completed four “missions.” He helped block roads and hold flags at the funeral for Lance Cpl. William Leusink of Maurice in June. He shielded Ford’s family from protesters in August. He rode as an escort for the remains of Pfc. William Thorne’s of Hospers earlier this month. He rode in the rain at Thorne’s funeral.

He daily checks his computer for more, searching for two words — “Mission confirmed.”

Operating as an online network, the Guard provides information at a click of the mouse. The Web site lists missions and status reports.

“Mission pending” means a soldier died and the organization is awaiting the family’s invitation to attend. “Mission confirmed” means riders can plan their trip. Riders sign on to choose missions. They write brief messages, indicating they’ll attend the mission, signing off as “Standing by.” Riders sacrifice personal time, selecting missions based on personal schedules.

Ride captains tally participants from online postings and then designate staging areas nationwide. Each group rides to another staging area, gaining numbers with each stop until arriving at the mission site.

“Our mission is simple. First and foremost, it’s to show respect to the family and fallen soldier,” Helwig said. 
Secondly, riders offer protection from protesters, using flags to shield the demonstrations and keeping processional routes blocked. “It’s hard to ignore them. It takes fortitude to not let our emotions get carried away,” Helwig said. “This soldier died to preserve their free speech, and they’re using it against him. That’s what bothers me.” 

The protesters call the riders “cycle sissies,” but Helwig said enduring insults is a price he’s willing to pay.

Local families say there’s no amount large enough to show gratitude for the riders’ service.

“This cost us everything,” said Elaine Leusink of the death of her son, William. “I was so naive. I didn’t even know about Westboro, and then, I was horrified. But to know the Patriot Guard was there to protect us was just overwhelming. They way they treated us as a family, the way they respected him, not even knowing him — it was fabulous.”

Community members noticed the Riders’ presence at Thorne’s funeral as well.

Hospers resident Darren Hulst and his two sons, Zac, 15, and Josiah, 8, stood with more than 60 Hospers residents holding flags on the half-mile road to the Hospers Cemetery, despite steady rainfall, before the funeral.
He said his boys stood awestruck by the bikers.

“I told them, ‘You’re probably not real thrilled I’m making you stand out in the rain, but this is a lesson you can’t learn otherwise,’” he said. “When that procession drove by, they didn’t say a word. They were moved.”

Deb Jasper, Thorne’s mother-in-law, said the Patriot Guard Riders impressed her and her motorcycle-loving husband, Harlyn, so much, they plan to join. “Let’s just say they gained a few more members,” she said.

While Helwig and others appreciate the families’ gratitude, they wait for the day they can say “Mission complete.”

“None, that’s how many more I want to do,” he said. “I don’t want to have to do a single one, but I’ll do every one I can. They deserve at least that.”