When Michelle Kane and her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joey Kane, attended the funeral of a friend killed in Iraq earlier this year, she says her husband was struck by the Harley riders in black leather who rumbled up to the funeral to support the family. "He was honored, and even said, 'if anything ever happened to me, call them. Let them be there for me.'" Michelle recounted the story recently, only an hour before she buried Joey, killed last month when his Humvee rolled over an IED in Iskandaria, south of Baghdad.
The Patriot Guard Riders are a loose collection of veterans and Harley-Davidson enthusiasts who spend their vacation time supporting the families of American soldiers and Marines killed in Iraq. Their mission is simple: to honor the sacrifice of servicemen and women who give their lives for their country.
"It gives us pleasure to comfort them to make sure that their grieving doesn't last forever and there are people out there who do care for their son or father's service," said John "Wings" Towers, Patriot Guard Rider in Washington State.
With 56,000 members in all 50 states, the riders work with the military to do whatever the family requests. They'll meet a body when it arrives stateside and escort it to the funeral home. They'll work as pallbearers. At Kane's funeral, about 30 members lined the inside and outside of his memorial service carrying Old Glory, and black leather, a strong contrast to the stars and stripes. One rider, Janet Yeager, couldn't help thinking about her son-in-law who is serving in Iraq as she escorted Sgt. Kane's body from Sea-Tac airport to the funeral home. "A lot of sadness," Yeager said, "him coming home to this beautiful place where he lived in a box. Very hard, I feel very much for the families."
The Patriot Guard is activated each time the military reports a death in Iraq. E-mails go out to the members in the state where the soldier will be buried. The riders work closely with the local base and the fallen soldier's family in planning their role at the funeral. "It's a mutual respect between the military and the Patriot Guard," said U.S. Army Sgt. Randy Baker. "Knowing that they understand the situation by being in service, and knowing that they have some compassion."
The group was founded to shield grieving families against the ramblings of the Rev. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas pastor who has picketed the funerals of gays and, more recently, U.S. war dead. The Patriot Guard will not let protesters near families.
"They can yell, scream and holler all they want because they're making fools of themselves," said "Cowboy," another rider.
The Washington Patriot Guard has yet to see Phelps, and has evolved into a non-political club of Harleys and honor. At Kane's funeral, the group gave stuffed bears to the soldier's three surviving children.
In times when the war is less popular, Michelle Kane said it's a comfort to know people care.
"I cannot say enough 'thank-yous' that they would take time out of their busy lives to thank my husband for what he did," she said.
Dan Springer is a FOX News Channel correspondent based in Seattle.
Dan Springer joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in August 2001 as a Seattle-based correspondent.