Verndale woman at the heart of Patriot Guard
A late spring day in 2006 was the day a notorious Kansas-based hate group picked to protest the funeral of a Fargo soldier, Specialist Michael Hermanson, who had been killed while serving in Iraq.
Karla Richardson got on her motorcycle and decided to join the flag line of the Patriot Guard riders protecting the funeral and offering red, white and blue solace to those who were mourning.
In those early days of the Patriot Guard, Richardson and a friend had been following the group on internet forums for several months and decided that if there was a mission nearby, they would join. It was Richardson's first mission.
Now, the Verndale resident is the State Ride Captain of the Minnesota Patriot Guard, and the organization itself has expanded its membership and its mission.
Richardson was named to state position in January. The State Ride Captain role is to help guide and keep the state on track with the mission scope, work with national headquarters and other states, and work with like-minded organizations.
Richardson is Army retired, having served from 1977 to 1998. Her current occupation is with the Minnesota Workforce Center in Wadena.
Richardson recalled the scene of Westboro Baptist Church protesters trying to disrupt the funeral.
"I think it was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in my life," she said.
She and her friend and the other Patriot Guard members formed the flag line.
"I knew then that not only was it something I needed to be involved with, it was something I wanted to be involved with," she said.
Richardson said that Westboro hasn't been seen in Minnesota for several years, but the Patriot Guard continues to honor soldiers and veterans.
"It's more of an honor mission to honor those who've stood up and signed the dotted line and served our country or are serving our country," she said.
The Minnesota Patriot Guard does flag lines at funerals of veterans as well as fallen current military members, flag lines for current soldiers as they deploy or return, monthly veteran home visits, events for disabled veterans such as turkey hunts and deer hunts and other similar services.
The Patriot Guard does not just drop in at funerals - they arrive at the request of the family.
Family members can request the presence of the Patriot Guard at its website, www.mnpatriotguard.org.
"We have a great team of leaders across the state," she said.
Ride captains communicate with other members, emailing them with the dates and times of missions and doing the ground work to make sure the word gets out and that the flag line happens.
"I don't think there's anything more beautiful than the U.S. flag," Richardson said.
Richardson said families tell them the flag line provides comfort and a feeling of safety, and that their loved one is being honored for their service.
She said there are members of the Patriot Guard who have been on both sides of the flag line - people who have not only participated in the flag line, but who have had a family member the flag line was held in honor for.
"It's not easy doing what we do sometimes, that's why we say we always wear our sunglasses -- because it hides our tears," Richardson said.
Richardson said soldier welcome home events and veteran home visits are "the fun part of what we do."
To join the organization itself, one does not need to be a veteran nor have a motorcycle.
"It's basically what's in your heart for those who have served and are serving," she said.
Since this is Minnesota and it is too cold to ride at certain times of the year, Richardson said that in the winter everyone arrives by car anyway.
Richardson said the Patriot Guard started by the Kansas American Legion in summer 2005 when the Westboro Baptist Church members decided to protest at a soldier's funeral.
Westboro, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, claims that God hates gay and lesbian people and by extension a myriad of institutions in the United States of America. Not affiliated with other Baptist churches, they have become known for picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers.
The riders arrive at the request of the family to stand in front of any protesters with flags unfurled to visually block the disruption.
"Everybody should have the right to be able to say their final goodbyes to their loved one without something like that," she said.
Since the protesters are prohibited by law in some states from being too close to the funeral itself, it helps the Patriot Guard stand in the gap.
"We are not a counter-protest group. We just form the flag line to shield the family and friends so that they don't have to see signs like 'Thank God for dead soldiers' and that kind of ilk," Richardson said.
Richardson said there are almost 6,000 members in the state of Minnesota, including some from area towns, and more than 225,000 nationally. They are all volunteers who show up at flag lines as they can, so a funeral in a certain town may have flag-bearing Patriot Guard members showing up from other areas of Minnesota and other neighboring states.
Some Minnesota Patriot Guard members are snowbirds who participate in flag lines in the southwestern states as well.
There are 20 Minnesota sectors and three regions in the state Patriot Guard.
Previously, Richardson was an assistant ride captain in 2007 for the Detroit Lakes sector, and became the ride captain in 2008.
In December 2008, she became the northern region senior ride captain.
"Then it became my area of responsibility to help the 10 sectors within the northern region with missions," she said.
She served in that capacity until becoming ride captain for the whole state last month.