Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Promotion to the Flag Line

To my PGR friends and family,

I will be stepping down as State Captain on February 20th and taking a promotion to the flag line...right where I started in PGR. I'm looking forward to that, but it also makes me look back. I must say it's been one heckuva ride.

The first time I visited the national PGR website was right after Christmas in 2005. Like many of you, I'm not big on joining things but this was different. Members of our military were being disrespected in the worst ways imaginable; I couldn't sit back and do nothing. I checked the website regularly to see if there was a PGR mission nearby, but I was unable to attend the few missions early in 2006.

My first mission was in Iowa during early spring. Someone forwarded an email to me that originally came from the soldier's mother. I still have it. She found out that the UGs were planning to be at her son's funeral and part of her email said, "Should it be possible for some of your group to attend, we would be honored and grateful."

The moment I read that, I knew I had to attend. The MN forum was alive with plans to gather up and ride together but I stayed silent; even though I knew a couple of people who were posting, I like to ride alone. I figured I'd just meet people there if time allowed, and headed out to buy a flag that I could carry on my bike.

It was a dark and chilly 28 degrees and my truck was covered in frost when I left on my bike that morning. I rode 120 miles to Clear Lake, Iowa and stopped to thaw out my hands by dunking them in hot coffee. The rest of the way I rode with three men from Iowa that I met in the parking lot. The flag line was very much needed that day; the UGs were there, and I stood in front of them shoulder to shoulder with countless others to shield everyone from their sight.

Not all of those I stood with wore leather; a couple whose son was serving Iraq drove from Omaha to stand guard at that funeral. John was dressed in a suit, and his wife Joan wore a flowered dress. They were welcomed into the flag line with open arms. One funeral attendee who arrived later than others got an up-close view of the protesters behind us. She hesitated and stared with tears in her eyes until a police officer who had volunteered to be there on his day off took her arm, escorting her up the street between the flags.

I listened as a quiet, older man talked with another man who was a little younger. Eventually he showed the younger man a purple heart he held clutched in his hand. The younger of the two nodded in understanding and said his was in a box in the basement. One had served in Korea; the other in Vietnam. When several younger enlisted men arrived in their ACUs, they were welcomed by those two into the flag line. I watched as men from three wars exchanged smiles and looks, all taking comfort in the timeless, ageless sense of brotherhood known only to warriors.

More than once, tears flowed onto leather, fine suits, flowered dresses and ACUs as the soldier's family laid him to rest.

I met a few people from Minnesota back at the staging area after the mission but chose to ride home alone again. When I gassed up before leaving town, the van that carried the casket bearers pulled in next to me as I filled my bike. I glanced at the van as I was about to pull away, and met the eyes of a lone soldier still in the back. He saluted me with tears in his eyes. I was completely caught off guard and I didn't know what to do...I am not a veteran but hesitantly saluted back, hoping that was ok...and mouthed a "thank you" to him through the window. The road was very hard to see when I rode away.

That first mission touched me deeply. Little did I know that my times of riding alone were about to become few and far between. Little did I know that I was now meeting people who would become friends and family to me.

Our mission has expanded in some ways....but the heart of it remains the same. Surrounding families in a circle of love during their darkest hours, supporting our troops as they deploy, welcoming them home with joy in our hearts...and a deep desire to help them reenter the communities they left behind as they deal with wounds both visible and hidden.

The memories I have over the last three years will remain with me for the rest of my life, and those memories continue to build.

Standing in 50 below windchills in Granite Falls....sweating under a hot sun in Kenyon...a 60-mile procession attended mile after mile by countless farmers and townspeople in southern Minnesota....a lonely cemetery in northern Minnesota....the town of Welcome opening its arms to us....a grandmother's hand pressed to the car window in Detroit Lakes, as though she were touching all those flags...Heroes United, our first gathering of Gold Star eagle soaring above us in Ladysmith....the sound of bagpipes, Taps, and rifle volleys at Fort Snelling National Cemetery...countless flag lines all over the state for moments of both deep sorrow and joyful welcome....and of course, escorting the last bus of Red Bulls after their 22-month deployment and winding up with the nickname of "EOF."

A lovely lady named Deb from Rochester sewed those initials onto a name patch (in pink thread, haha) before last year's rally. I get asked what those letters mean now and then; "Escalation Of Force" was bestowed on me by some of the 34th ID "Red Bulls" because of an argument I had with a couple of 18-wheelers and a cager who momentarily got in the way of their homecoming, but it struck me not too long ago that it describes all of us in the Patriot Guard.

PGR has escalated into a force all by itself. We stood together initially because someone was doing our heroes wrong, and it soon became clear that we could do more. There are many organizations that support our servicemembers, but not all of us fit in those groups. Veterans and non-veterans can stand together in PGR and put patriotism into action.

We are a group that appears to be a shield, but I think we are more blanket than armor. We are a group that many "non-joiners" are comfortable joining. I think it's because when we stand for those who stood for us, we find a home with fellow patriots who are unabashed in their love of freedom and love, respect and gratitude for those who defend our freedoms. In some ways I feel like we are a group of misfits who fill in when things slip through the cracks, be it monetarily or otherwise.

You've all gone above and beyond for our military members and Veterans in the short history of this organization...and as long as our focus remains on those we serve, we will continue to be a growing force for good.

You're the best of the best in my book, and it has truly been an honor and a privilege to serve as your state captain.

The Ride Captains will soon make their recommendations for a new State Captain, and I trust that you will all support whomever holds this position next.

Thank you for what you all do. God bless you all...and I'll see you on the flag line.