On a recent warm winter day, Assistant Deputy State Captain and Ride Captain Ron “Joker” Smith called members of the Central Texas Patriot Guard Riders into a huddle in front of a funeral home in Gatesville.
Wearing leather vests, chaps, boots, bandannas, patches on the back of jackets and pins, 1st Cavalry Division hats and riding motorcycles, they’re not what many people would expect to see at a funeral.
But they are committed to honoring their fallen brothers and sisters.
“Listen up,” Smith said to the assembled group. “We are here for our fallen brother, Staff Sgt. William Dobbs, a U.S. Air Force Korean War veteran who, before he passed, requested that we man a flag line for him and then escort him to his final resting place.”
As Smith, a retired first sergeant who spent 24 years in the Army, talks, the group of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps veterans smoke cigarettes, shuffle their feet, or lean on their bikes as they listen to directions.
“When the visitation is over, line up with (Ron) ‘PACman’ (Decker) who will lead the procession from the funeral home,” Smith instructed. “Behind PACman will be us riders followed by the hearse and family. The ride is not long, a few turns. No radios, no waving to people, this is not a parade. Keep distance from each other; don’t want any falls or crashes. Once at the grave site we will strike a flag line.”
Among the group of 15 riders is Mary “Mare Bear” Gregory, who served in the Army for 21 years before retiring as a sergeant first class. Starting in 2008 with her “green pickle” Jeep, she attends Patriot Guard missions — which is what riders call funerals — to show support for fallen veterans.
Despite attending about a hundred funerals a year, one from 2008 still stands out in Gregory’s mind. When Pvt. George Lee Moss died in the domiciliary at the VA in Temple, with no family around, the Patriot Guard claimed his body and arranged for services.
“I still go to his headstone often, and every Christmas I make sure to put and remove a wreath on his personally; every year,” she said.
The group is close.
Decker, Smith and Gregory haven’t missed a mission in six years, including the burial of Cpl. Librado Luna, a soldier killed in action in Korea, whose remains were finally found and returned home to his family in 2008.
“I was deeply touched by this mission,” Gregory said. “Finally, closure after all those years. The mother and his widow were able to lay to rest their loved one. We all get touched with each mission. We all walk away with tears or a sense of pride after the loved one’s family hugs us or shakes our hands and says ‘Thank you for being here.’”
But it’s not about appreciation, Smith said. It’s a duty and a calling.
“I will continue standing for those (who served) until the day when those will stand for me and I have passed.”