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Another Service Member Honored... Written By: J. S. Anderson- San Diego Region

Written by  January 31, 2019

The sound of bikes fills the San Diego morning air, with riders beginning to gather, as they often do multiple times per week, at the designated staging area. Harleys, Hondas, Indians, Spyders, and the occasional BMW, and other makes and models: an eclectic group of motorcycles for sure. The bikers are coming together at the request of a family, and volunteering their time in a time of grief, to honor the deceased. A solemn and important undertaking, appropriately titled “missions” that these Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) perform selflessly for members of the military who die on active duty and veterans who have drawn their last breaths.

 

Each PGR mission is no more or less important than all the others they support, week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out. The support ranges from a handful to hundreds of riders, not at all surprising considering the large local active duty Navy and Marine Corps presence, plus a sizeable veteran community, in and near San Diego. Some missions are high visibility, like those for active duty servicemembers, a Marine who died in World War II, or a recent mission for a Pearl Harbor Survivor. Regardless of the number of participating bikers, the importance of honoring the individual serviceman or –woman is uppermost in their minds.

In the lineup of bikes, most of the riders are veterans, but by no means are they all. Some are simply American patriots giving of their time to honor those who serve and have served. Of the veterans, some are retired military, while others served a few years. The customary leather and denim vests serve as walking billboards, with patches proclaiming military history, offering patriotic sentiments, and (in many cases) highlighting affiliation with the PGR. The most common patch, by far, is the American flag, followed by a patch indicating in which branch of the Armed Forces the individual served.  

There is an axiom about military service that goes, “All gave some, some gave all.” Long after taking off the uniforms of their nation, some return to giving. Army veterans Lorenzo Lizarraga and Tom Shaff and Marine Corps veteran Ken Brassell continue giving. Giving to active duty members, fellow veterans, and their families. For these veteran bikers, patriotism is integral to their lives. It is also true the broader biker community is patriotic.  

Brassell giving a briefLizarraga did not realize what it meant to be a veteran until later in life, long after taking off the uniform. His sense of patriotism began while travelling, living, and working outside the country on civilian business for many years. “Once you leave this country, you are surprised how much you care for it. You realize how good it is, in spite of its flaws. Some people have to live outside of the country to truly appreciate it,” he said.

Commenting on his reborn patriotism, Brassell said, “When I was in the service, I didn’t think that way.” When his enlistment was up, he just left active duty with a “see ya” attitude and did not look back. Like Lizarraga, Brassell did not become involved as a veteran until much later in life. While living in Texas in 2006, he attended a funeral for a gentleman who, unbeknownst to him, was a veteran. Brassell was surprised to see five members of the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) standing a flag line at his friend’s funeral. “That absolutely changed my life. That is really cool. To stand up for this guy simply because he served,” he said.

PGR mission 11 20 18Lizarraga and Brassell are now stalwarts in the San Diego area PGR activities, with Lizarraga summing it up by saying, “My commitment to it boils down to one thing: patriotism.” This commitment is no small undertaking, since the Southern California PGR performed over 600 missions in 2018 alone. Lizarraga’s and Brassell’s commitment to the PGR is daily, Maybe a few minutes, Maybe several hours, Mission planning, leading, and conducting, Communicating with families, the military, cemeteries, mortuaries, and members of the PGR. Countless hours. Countless miles ridden.  

Some of their fellow PGR members are not veterans, but are hard-core patriots and just as committed, according to Lizarraga. The common denominator, however, is that they are all patriots through and through. “I am just as proud of a guy who comes to the Patriot Guard who isn’t a veteran. He didn’t go through boot camp and all the other crap we all did,” Brassell added.

Honored to participate in PGR missions, they also take great pride in them. Citing a specific PGR mission he led for Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Holley, who perished in a CH-53 helicopter mishap, Brassell said, “It makes you feel so proud, so patriotic.” And that pride is not only for the missions supporting active duty funerals, but for all the veterans as well. “I like honoring anyone. I don’t care if he was a janitor in the Army.” That sense of patriotism and pride also leads into frustration.  

“Patriotism wanes in a time of peace,” said Shaff. “Sadly, it takes an event, like 9-11, to bring out patriotism. People don’t show patriotism until there is an event that brings them out.”   Referencing his work with the PGR, Lizarraga said, “When we talk about our commitment to the PGR, we are really describing our commitment to this country.”

 PGR members as pallbearers  Lizarraga added, “On a mission when we were heavy in the fight in Iraq, watching a casket being unloaded from an aircraft, I saw the mother standing there and thought that her son told her, before shipping out, ‘Don’t worry mom, I’ll be back.’ It brought me to tears and looking at the other PGR members, tears were in their eyes too.”  

“We don’t do this for us. We are out there for the veterans and active duty,” said Lizarraga. As Brassell said, “If you wore a uniform, then someone should hold a flag for you when you go. It’s that simple. A simple flag line means so much to the families.”

PGR flag lineIt is long before the appointed time for the mission briefing and motorcycles already fill the staging area. The bikers dismount, remove helmets, and stow gear. Some mount large American flags to poles affixed to their rides. Handshakes all around and conversations predictably center on two main topics: the biker lifestyle and military. “Are you go going to Rolling Thunder this year?” referring to reports that 2019 will be the last year for the iconic event. Others speak of favorite rides, like the Pacific Coast Highway. (If not aware of it, this is one of the all-time best rides for the dedicated biker.) Sturgis. Daytona. Laughlin. And local rides like Sunrise Highway. There is also some good natured interserice banter, common in the veteran community. Then the banter and other conversation stop, as the Ride Captain gets everyone’s attention.

Now the bikers get down to business. After being thanked for coming out, they face the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Covers (hats) are removed and a prayer offered. The Ride Captain provides the mission briefing, including a brief history of the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or coastguardsman they will be honoring this day, and the safety brief. The joviality present just moments before is replaced by serious focus for the task at hand. “No radios,” instructs the Ride Captain, “this isn’t a parade, it is a funeral.”

Flags on bikesThe standard arrangement for an escort is for three bikes flying large American flags to form a missing man formation riding in front of the hearse, then vehicles carrying members of family, the remaining motorcycles, and finally other vehicles. An escort can be for a few or dozens of miles. Regardless, safety first and always, as discussed in the mission briefing. It is a somber and telling visual to see three lead motorcycles flying American flags leading a funeral procession down a local freeway, with all the remaining bikes (some also flying large American flags) following the hearse and family.

Arriving at the cemetery, national or private, the bikes park, and riders prepare to provide a flag line to honor the individual. From experience, there are funerals at which the members of the PGR outnumber family and friends, and even serve as pall bearers. Locally, the PGR works with the military commands for active duty missions, plus military honor details and cemetery staff to make the missions smooth and respectful.

At the end of the funeral and after one final salute with flags raised at the command, “Present Arms,” the PGR members quietly make their way back to their bikes, load up, and (as quietly as possible) depart. Another service member, active duty or veteran, has been laid to rest and these volunteers ensured he/she was honored.