Friday, June 13, 2008

The Face of the Patriot Guard

Remember Karl Malden doing those ads for American Express? "Don't leave home without it!" was his catch phrase and for quite some time, he was the "face" of the company.

One of the neat things about the Patriot Guard is that we don't have any particular "face" that the general public knows us by. For us as members, the faces we look for at missions are those of the Ride Captains - they are the ones who have the details of what we're doing that day. Some of us look for new faces, to welcome them. As many of us have become friends, we now look for each other - and we look out for each other.

But when we hear from military members, their families or the general public they never say "when I came up the street, I saw John, Karla, and Paul standing there." What we always hear is, "I turned the corner and saw all those FLAGS." Sometimes they add, "...and I felt so safe when I saw them."

That's really the face of the Patriot Guard: Old Glory. The flag of the United States of America. What better face could we possibly have? We're lucky that we don't depend on any one personality to represent us - but even though our face doesn't need a nightly dose of Oil of Olay or botox injections, HOW we show that face matters a lot.

This week, several members spent quite a while talking about flag etiquette and flag protocol with members of state leadership - how far we've come, and where we'd like to be. At early missions, it was pretty common to see flags held at all sorts of angles. Today, it's much more common to see them held straight up, as it should be. The US flag is never dipped.

We're not a military organization, and we're not an official color guard - but we are holding the flag lines in the presence of the military and in honor of those who serve. Every effort we can make to get it right, we should!

If we were to follow military ceremony protocol, we'd all be holding the flag in our right hands, never our left. However...when we're standing in heat, cold, strong winds and driving rain or snow for a few hours or longer, it's not always possible to perfectly emulate a color guard. As one member put it, the US Flag Code doesn't exactly address that length of time in those conditions, or the fact that some of us might have physical impairments that make it impossible.

Obviously, we all know the flag should never touch the ground - but another member made a comment that some of us might not even think about when we're finishing up at a mission:

"I can't stand it when someone walks with a flag over their shoulder like it's a sack of laundry. It should always be treated with RESPECT, not casually."

Even if we can't do this perfectly, one of several things we all agreed on is that we can never be "too respectful" of our flag, or give out "too much" information on protocol. It represents so much - and when we are standing in a flag line, we are holding it in honor of those who serve our country. All too often, it is in honor of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us.

Right now, our flag protocol is a little buried on the website under "Member Documents." We're talking about expanding the information and making it a little more visible on our website. One of our Ride Captains pointed out that the Kansas Patriot Guard has a great page on flag protocol on their website - click HERE to see that page.

One thing I should point out about flying flags from bikes: In addition to flag protocol, we will not be flying any flags if we're over 30-35 mph....for both safety reasons (dodging poles is no fun), and so we do not see any flags laying on the roadside because a grommet let loose or a flag pole failed at highway speeds.

We'll continue to hold them upright, with respect....because it makes a difference.

A week ago, several of us were gathered at a gas station prior to a Welcome Home escort when a car with Veteran license plates pulled up and stopped. A young woman got out and walked over, saying, "Are you guys all Patriot Guard Riders?"

We all nodded and she said, "I'm one of the Red Bulls that you welcomed home last summer. That was just incredible! I can't tell you how much it meant to us when you escorted our bus - and when we got to the armory and saw all those flags, we just couldn't believe it. Have you ever realized how beautiful our flag is? The colors are so bright and beautiful!"

It was a pretty neat conversation, especially when she realized why we were gathered at that particular gas station; we were headed out to welcome home another group of National Guard soldiers. I must say that it was also a little bittersweet, because she told us she will be deployed to Iraq again this coming January. We'll be there when she leaves....and again when she comes home.

And it won't matter specifically who is there, because no matter who is holding it...the face of the Patriot Guard will be there, with her colors as bright as ever: Old Glory.