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Topeka Capitol Journal Honors the Patriot Guard as Kansans of the Year



November 2006 File Photograph/The Capital-Journal
Terry Houck, right, and Bill Logan join other Patriot Guard members at a church in St. Mark to mourn the passing of Army Spc. Tim Thompson and his fiance, Ashley Dawn Neises, both of whom died Thanksgiving Day in a traffic accident in Wichita.

"We didn't know what we were up against," Houck said. "We hadn't done it before."

He said they approached members of Doles' family to explain that a protest by Phelps' followers was a possibility and offered to help minimize the influence of pickets.

"Calling the family is the hardest," Houck said. "I say, 'We want to be there to show how much we respect and honor your sacrifice.' "

That initial Oklahoma mission, which involved about 45 riders, was considered a success and prompted the group to select a name. The label "Patriot Guard" seemed to fit. It was unveiled Oct. 27, 2005, in Tonganoxie at the funeral of Army Spc. Lucas Frantz, who was killed by a sniper's bullet on his 22nd birthday in Baghdad. The Phelps group protested his funeral, and about 200 Patriot Guard riders were there to meet them.

This Kansas contingent has since attended almost 40 funerals in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. In a mere 18 months, an organization initiated by a small group of U.S. veterans from Kansas has grown to include more than 60,000 members across the nation.

Houck said the objective wasn't the accumulation of status, power or wealth. There are no dues to belong and no military service requirement. Anyone, even those without a motorcycle, can join.

"It's about standing shoulder to shoulder," Houck said. "It's about respect."

Several Patriot Guard moments are etched in his mind.

In Arkansas City one year ago, an American eagle appeared in the sky above Patriot Guard members assembled for the burial of Army Sgt. Jerry Mills.

"The service had just started," Houck said. "It circled above the church for 25 to 30 minutes."

There was the touching funeral in February for Army Cpl. Peter Wagler, who was killed on Mother's Day.

Hauck said as many as 1,000 people attended Wagler's service in Hutchinson. The Patriot Guard escort included 400 motorcycle riders. At the cemetery, Wagler's family invited several in the Patriot Guard to drop a handful of dirt on the casket.

"You know it's not your son or daughter, but it sure makes it seem like it," Hauck said.

In November of this year, Army Sgt. WillSun Mock's memorial service was conducted in Wellington and the burial in Harper. The 23-year-old died in Baghdad when a bomb exploded near his vehicle. It was as if every person in both cities and throughout the 35 miles of countryside between watched the motorcade pass.

"I think every farmer and every rancher was there," Hauck said. "When you got to Harper, I don't think there was a soul in a house. They were out on the streets."

As emotional as some of these moments remain, he said, "It's a healing process for people like me."

Patriot Guard member J.D. "Beaux" Bryant, who leads a Christian ministry in Grantville, said he joined the group more than a year ago because "it was the right thing to do."

Bryant said he prays for families of the war dead.

He does the same for members of Westboro Baptist Church.

"They are as lost as can be," Bryant said.

He said there was no question the Patriot Guard has changed some folks' impression of what contribution to society a group of tough-looking motorcycle enthusiasts can make. The Patriot Guard no longer has to sell the idea to families of the dead. The grieving relatives call the Patriot Guard.

While stereotypes have been altered by the Patriot Guard, the organization's mission has broadened recently to include funerals of veterans who fought in past wars, as well as participation in homecoming celebrations for Kansans in the military.

That deeper commitment pleases Patriot Guard co-founder Bill Logan, a burly Vietnam vet from Wichita.

"We need to keep our expression of patriotism alive," he said.

Logan said many in the Patriot Guard, despite their advanced age, would return to military service if the Department of Defense would accept them.

"Of course, they won't," he said. "But this is one way we can still serve."

That continuing sense of service to others led him and dozens of his peers to a glorious building of stained glass and stone in St. Mark at 10 a.m. Nov. 29. While the Patriot Guard shivered outside in the cold, Pastor Will Haworth and the Rev. John Gilsenan led a joint service for Thompson, the Iraq war veteran, and Neises, who had planned to move to Fort Hood, Texas, with her two children to begin a new life with Thompson.

Cregg Hansen said no one in the Patriot Guard needs to look far for motivation.

"When you get a letter or a big hug from a family member, you know you're on the right side," he said.

Tim Carpenter can be reached at (785) 296-3005 or timothy.carpenter@cjonline.com.

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