It was the kind of bright blue sky you find only in October as dozens of people gathered in Suwanee, Ga. to pay tribute to Thomas Joseph Rees.

The obit was compelling:

“Fighter by day, lover by night, drunkard by choice and Uncle Sam’s Marching Clown forever.” So, too, was the service for the 62-year-old former Marine who “enjoyed beautiful women, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Camel cigarettes, fast cars…”

The family gathered on the front porch of the home, facing us: the 87-year old mother, a sister, one surviving brother, spouses, assorted nieces and nephews. The Marine honor guard was off to the side. And behind us, about two dozen men and women dressed in jeans, bandanas, caps, boots and vests filled with military medals stood dead still holding large American flags. They had arrived, not soundlessly, on motorcyles and taken their places silently. Almost like a huge hug, they had come to honor a former Marine and comrade. And they had our backs, too.

I’ve been to military funerals before but not one where this loyal group – the Patriot Guard Riders – had come to pay their respects and, if necessary, offer protection.

On this day when we pause to pay tribute to veterans of all ages, all wars, all ranks, this group deserves attention, too.

Their mission, stated on their website (www.patriotguard.org) is simply this: “to attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family…[to] show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families and their communities and [to] shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor…”

It was the need for that shield that created the impetus for this group. According to the history on their website – “what we’ve been able to piece together” – it was in 2005 when American Legion Riders 136 in Kansas caught wind of the Westboro Baptist Church’s plans to disrupt a military funeral. Members of the church claim that the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are “divine retribution” for homosexuality.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case of protest at a funeral in Maryland in 2006 – specifically, to decide if the father of a Marine killed in Iraq has the right to sue protesters who carried signs at his son’s funeral reading “God Hates You” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”

It was exactly the kind of disrespectful, disruptive scene the PGR was created to block out in Kansas – with revving bike engines, singing patriotic songs and waving the flags.

Shortly thereafter, a group was formed in Missouri, then Oklahoma, and it wasn’t long before a nation-wide campaign was rolling, gathering support across the United States. A call went out to riders across the nation and state captains began organizing in earnest. Members signed from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Rolling Thunder, Combat Vets Motorcycle Association and more so that today, there are more than 200,000 Patriot Guard Riders. Though many of the originals are veterans from the war in Vietnam, many are not vets now and some don’t actually ride bikes.

The only guiding principle: “a deep respect for those who serve our country; military, firefighters or law enforcement.”

Joe “Mack” McGuigan, had ridden north from Newnan, Ga. for the service honoring Tommy (as I knew him when we were in high school) Rees. “We only come when we are asked,” he said. “We stand tall, proud and silent in the flagline.” McGuigan said “the welcome homes” – when the PGR “strangers on steel horses” escort a body from the airport – are a particularly meaningful tribute for Vietnam vets like himself. “Our attitude is, we’re not going to let it happen again,” he said. “No way is another generation going to go through what we did when we came home.”

At the Rees home in Suwanee, the Marine Honor Guard fired three rifle volleys and unfolded and refolded the flag in utter silence before presenting it to the family. The contrast between the formality of their dress, demeanor and precision and that of the comparatively scruffy but no less sincere or respectful PGR said a lot about T, TR or Tom Rees but also about the diversity of pomp, personalities, purpose and honor that makes up America today.

Top photo: Thomas Joseph Rees as a young Marine.

Bottom photo: Thomas Joseph Rees, older

To see for yourself – and to pay tribute to the PGR today — visit the websites below for photographs and videos of the patriotic bike-riding corp. And don’t miss the obituary in its entirety: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/gwinnettdailypost/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=146268967

More Photos: http://andrews3.gotfamiliesonline.com/gallery/2010-09-07-1

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ga_pgr_riders/sets/

Youtube: (Double click on the icon to see the video full-size.)

About the author: Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit (www.obitkit.com)

###
Susan Soper

Susan Soper

Susan Soper is a longtime journalist: as a writer for Newsday where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for The Heroin Trail, writer at CNN, Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Executive Editor at Atlanta INtown. Recently, she created and published a workbook, ObitKit (www.obitkit.com). She is currently working on a number of writing and editing projects, including obituaries and life stories. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Bo Holland. Her interests include hiking, reading, the arts, people (dead and alive) and, in a better economy, travel. Staying close to home these days, she takes and documents “Urban Hikes” and is interested in sharing sites of interest with readers of Like the Dew.