Guarding fallen soldiers
Karla Richardson of Verndale retired her Army uniform after 21 years in active duty. She doesn't wear her sergeant first class insignia anymore, but she still serves the military. This time it's on top a Honda VTX 1300 in jeans, a tank top, boots and a leather vest with the Patriot Guard Riders logo. Richardson is a senior ride captain with the Minnesota Patriot Guard and leads missions to honor fallen soldiers and veterans.
"Once an NCO, always an NCO," she said. "We're taught you take care of your soldiers."
She's completed missions honoring veterans in Minnesota, North Dakota and even Emo, Ontario. Richardson joined the PGR in 2005 not long after it formed in response to protests at soldiers' funerals. Since then more states have adopted laws requiring protestors be a certain distance away from funeral sites. The PGR is nationwide and its purpose evolved from shielding families to more of an honor mission.
"Our organization feels any honor we can pay our fallen soldiers and veterans for their service and sacrifice for our country and our freedoms is what we want to do," Richardson said. "And people show up."
On July 13, 45 patriot guards showed up on short notice for a Monday afternoon funeral in Park Rapids for Clyde E. Jessen, a Marine veteran who served in Vietnam from 1966-1967, Richardson said. He died at age 62 from cancer caused by Agent Orange.
Ken Phillips of Menahga is an assistant ride captain with the Detroit Lakes sector and a long-time friend of Jessen. The funeral gave him an opportunity to be on both sides of a PGR mission.
"When you come out of the church and see all of the American flags in the flag line ... I was choked up," he said.
He's usually a part of the flag line.
"That's the first time I've been on the opposite end of it, and it was pretty amazing," Phillips said.
Many of Phillips' family members including his wife, Diann, are PGR members. The Phillipses' oldest son and youngest daughter are in the National Guard. Their son served in Iraq in 2005.
One of Phillips' longest missions was to Emo, Ontario, July 25 when 44 Patriot Guards from Minnesota drove to the grave site of Cpl. Ivan Broeffle, a 21-year-old Canadian citizen killed with the U.S. military 68 days after arriving in Vietnam. His grave was without a marker for 41 years. The PGR drove up to Emo for a ceremony in honor of the markers' long-overdue arrival.
The Patriot Guard flag line is one of the most impressive things you're going to see, said Ida Colgan, Broeffle's sister.
"It made the family feel so good and so special," Colgan, 75, said.
Colgan's daughter, who was born with a smile resembling her uncle's nine months after he died, sang "Amazing Grace," during the ceremony. The family also received a plaque declaring Broeffle to be a "true American hero," Colgan said.
Her brother volunteered to go to Vietnam and died giving aid to his buddies, Colgan said.
Broeffle's name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.
"He's certainly not forgotten," Colgan said.
The PGR turnout in Emo amazed Richardson, she said. Six Minnesota soldiers were killed in July and two missions for those soldiers were going on that same weekend.
Missions honoring veterans are important, but the killed in action are the PGR's priority, Richardson said.
"The KIA missions are hard," Richardson said. "They seem so young."
The sacrifice they've paid for our freedom is something you can't put a description on, she said.
The processional and flag line are very somber, she said. Her heart bleeds for the family and friends. There's also a lot of pride in the soldier, Richardson said. And it's a pride she sees reflected in the community.
"When you see families and little kids out on the road as the procession goes by and see the patriotism and the outpouring of love for the family and the fallen soldier, that's ... very emotional," Richardson said.
The emotional repercussions of the patriotic displays can be a little dangerous, however, for a motorcycle driver. Richardson recalled seeing three boys around age 12 or 13 by the Wal-Mart in Detroit Lakes standing by themselves on the street corner waving flags and holding their hands over their hearts.
"And I'm sitting there driving the bike and I'm like don't cry now, you have to see where you're going," she said.
Richardson's first mission was for the 2006 funeral of Spc. Michael Hermanson in Fargo, N.D. She can't even begin to say how many missions she's been on since then, she said. She is one of three senior ride captains in the state and oversees nine of the 20 Minnesota sectors. She's also the Detroit Lakes sector ride captain. Sector ride captains are responsible for making arrangements with the casualty assistance office and the funeral home so they can find out when the family will arrive at the church.
Families members have to invite the PGR to the funeral, Richardson said.
"We want it to be their wish that we're there," she said.
They usually start the flag line before the family arrives for the visitation and the flag line members are the last people to leave the cemetery.
The Patriot Guard also has a Help on the Homefront mission, which involves visiting veterans' homes around the state. They also bring their motorcycles and 3x5-foot flags to soldier send offs and welcome homes.
"Those ones -- the welcome homes and the veteran home visits -- are obviously the fun ones to do," Richardson said.
Soldiers get to know PGR members because of the send offs and welcome homes as well as through events like a barbecue riders put on at Camp Ripley July 30 for 800 soldiers and their families, she said. Many of the soldiers join the PGR when they get back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are no dues for membership and involvement is strictly volunteer, she said. Riders pay for their own gas and hotel expenses and take vacation time from work to go on missions. Richardson's day job is at the WorkForce Center in Wadena and they are supportive of her involvement with the PGR, she said.
Members don't have to be veterans or ride motorcycles to join, she said. In the winter everyone drives cars to missions.
For a retired sergeant in the army there isn't anything better than being able to honor a soldier or a veteran and get to ride her motorcycle at the same time, Richardson said.
"There's something about riding and just letting the air clear your brain," she said.
Phillips is a biker at heart, too.
"I'd like to be on a motorcycle 24 hours a day as far as I'm concerned," he said.
The PGR is an organization Richardson is very proud of, she said. Soldiers and veterans have served and sacrificed for us.
"I'm very proud to hold a flag in their honor," Richardson said.