In August 2005, as the casualties from the Iraq War started to increase, an isolated church group began to gather and protest at the funerals of soldiers.
Their demonstrations had nothing to do with the particular soldiers who had died, but surviving family members, overwhelmed by grief, were horrified when the protestors disrupted a funeral. The protests made no sense to them.
After hearing about the incident, a small group of motorcycle riders from the American Legion in Kansas vowed to do all it could to shield the families of the fallen.
As the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan rose, their mission expanded from a shield to a powerful presence honoring the soldiers killed in action and their families. The small group became the Patriot Guard Riders, and each month its numbers swelled.
Its presence is important to people like Lloyd Morris. Morris just buried his 21-year-old son, Marine Lance Corp. Stephen Morris, who was killed in Iraq on Christmas Eve when a bomb blew up his vehicle in the Anbar Province.
The Morris family lives in Lake Jackson, Texas, a small, close-knit community whose residents embraced the Morris family when word spread of Stephen's death. Flags and yellow ribbons lined the street to their home, and well-wishers offered food, comfort and prayers.
Lloyd Morris prayed for his son's return home. "I felt like the Lord was going to bring him home, only not the way I expected. It's dawned on me a little bit that I've lost my son, but I don't think it's dawned on me yet," he said, in trying to explain his state of mind.
Crowds of Bikers Come Out to Support Iraq Troops
The Patriot Guard Riders is a diverse group. Men and women, young and old, teachers and tugboat pilots join to honor the fallen.
There are veterans like Richard Ford, aka "Boomer," who served during the Vietnam War. "Most of the guys out here are vets themselves that have been in Vietnam, Korea, we've got some from WWII that show up. We've got 'em from Desert Storm and all the wars that we've been in, they're all here," Ford said.
Boomer said the response was different when he came home from Vietnam in the '70s, and he had the impression that nobody was providing support for the troops.
"We'd come home and it'd be like we were almost invisible. Either that or we'd walk out of a building and there'd be people walking up and down the streets with banners, posters, boards, yelling, sometimes throwing things," he said.
Morris was grateful when Boomer and his fellow Patriot Guard Riders showed up to honor his son. "It was an honor to have them," Morris said. "I knew a number of them. It was very, very, very encouraging. A number of 'em came over and gave me hugs.
"I think it was people caring that my wife has made it, through their prayers," he said about the presence of the bikers. "There was a number of days, a couple of days, she didn't feel like even getting up, she felt like dying. I said to her, look at the [headlights] behind us, just a sea of lights."
Sometimes dozens of riders show up, sometimes hundreds. Many use up their vacation days to attend as many funerals as possible. They may max out their gasoline credit cards, but they have vowed to honor each and every fallen soldier.
At first, the sight of these burly bikers had some, like Marine Col. Greg Boyd, Stephen Morris's commanding officer, wondering who these bikers were and why they were at the funerals.
"I had a misperception about them when I first saw them. I didn't know what to expect," he said. "But after I got a chance to … see them in action, talk to them and meet them, shake their hands, I know their hearts are in the right place. Nothing could stop them from being there."
Morris said Stephen would have loved to see all the riders. He praised the group for offering comfort in his time of need.
"They walked up to me, told me they loved me and cared about me. Didn't understand what I was going through, but they loved me," he said.
'It Was Amazing'
Tanner Ford's twin brother, Cody, was killed in Iraq last month. He wanted the Patriot Guard Riders at his brother's funeral, and he was overwhelmed by the response.
"I was pretty astonished. I thought it was going to be six or seven guys that would come. Twenty or 30 of them showed up. And it was amazing. They were real respectful, and they all stood at attention the entire funeral holding the flags.They just know the sacrifice," Ford said. "I think that's the biggest lesson I learned. It doesn't matter if you're for or against the war, or for or against the president"
Rider Benjamin Guzman said it was important to him to be there because he, too, was a father. "I have a son, on his third tour in Iraq now, and those two boys right there are my sons, and I don't want to do this for them."
One rider on his way home stopped and pulled up next to Boyd. He said the rider told him, "I am sending my boy to you in a month. I want you to take care of him." Boyd responded, "I will. Semper Fi."
One of the people participating, Kelly "Mustang" Mason, works 30 days on as a tugboat pilot, then gets 30 days off. He spends his days off honoring as many soldiers and families as possible.
"To see the families, the grief, and then to see their eyes light up when they see the Patriot Guard Riders standing there, holding up American flags," said Mason about the most rewarding part of his trips. "People they have never met, and may never meet again. It just means so much to me that I cannot see not going to every mission that I possibly can. I do hope this ends soon. We're tired of burying our sons and daughters."
Boyd said he understands why they do this. "I think for the Patriot Guard Riders it is love of country. That's really what I think is in their heart, they really want to honor this country.
"People stop their cars and get out, put their hand over their heart, stop what they're doing and pay attention," said Boyd. "They'll remember that when they read it in the paper. Tomorrow it'll be about Lance Corp. Stephen Morris. And they'll know that that's him, that he's gone by. And I don't think they'd probably know that if they didn't see those Patriot Guard Riders and all those flags."