Published Sunday, December 31, 2006
Grieving families protected by vets on motorcycles
Members of the Patriot Guard are The Capital-Journal's Kansans of the Year
Each of these Kansas Patriot Guard sentries, many of whom once served their country in uniform, gripped 10-foot wooden poles attached to American flags that were drawn taunt by a savage north wind ripping through the tiny community northwest of Wichita.
Despite a forecast warning of inclement weather, half of them arrived on motorcycles in case the powerful machines were needed to complete their mission of mercy.
Patriot Guard members were at the church to join with others in mourning the passing of Army Spc. Tim Thompson and his fiancé, Ashley Dawn Neises, both of whom died Thanksgiving Day in a traffic accident in Wichita.
The Harley honor guard's assignment included the task of shielding mourners from supporters of Pastor Fred Phelps, of Topeka, who has demonstrated a willingness to exploit the emotional agony of others for personal gain. Phelps didn't picket this funeral, but Patriot Guard riders attending funeral services for U.S. soldiers repeatedly have formed human barricades to block sight lines and relied on the roar of pounding cylinders to drown out disturbing chants of Phelps' crusaders.
"I appreciate the Patriot Guard," Cheryl Hunter, one of Thompson's aunts, said at the funeral in St. Mark. "I think they're a great group."
The organization, which blossomed into a mass movement with members in 50 states, was borne of a discussion in July 2005 between Terry Houck and his wife, Carol Houck, in Derby.
She expressed alarm that a group from Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church had disrupted the funeral of Army Spc. Jared Hartley in Newkirk, Okla.
Houck, a Vietnam veteran, approached friends at American Legion Post 136 in Mulvane to measure interest in mounting a response. The question posed to fellow veterans Cregg Hansen, Bill Logan, Steve McDonald and Gregory Hansen was simple: Should we ride as a group to funerals of U.S. soldiers to establish a buffer of steel and humanity between Phelps and families subjected to his gay-baiting antics?
In August, there was growing consensus that action was required. This coincided with a joint appearance by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack in Wichita. The event attracted Phelps' crew and inspired an impromptu intervention that gave shape to the Patriot Guard's operating technique.
"We went down there," said Cregg Hansen, a Patriot Guard co-founder from Derby. "We did see that our presence irritated the Phelpses."
The Kansas group decided to appear in force at funerals of Iraq and Afghanistan war dead that took place within 200 miles of Wichita. The riders would go only at the invitation of a deceased soldier's family, however. They would work in collaboration with law enforcement to make certain order was maintained. And they would use their contacts to convince vets in other states to follow a similar path.
The first authentic test for these motorcycle warriors was scheduled for Oct. 11, 2005, at the funeral of Army Sgt. John Doles in Chelsea, Okla.