By Ryan Lenz
Sunday, February 19, 2006
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., Feb. 18 -- Wearing leather chaps and vests covered in military patches, a band of motorcyclists rolls from one service member's funeral to another in hopes their respectful cheers and revving engines will drown out the insults of protesters.
Calling themselves the Patriot Guard Riders, they are made up of motorcycle club members who could no longer tolerate a Kansas-based fundamentalist church demonstrating at military funerals with signs reading, "Thank God for IEDs [makeshift bombs]." The bikers shield the families from the protesters and overshadow the jeers with patriotic chants and a display of red-white-and-blue flags.
"The most important thing we can do is let families know that the nation cares," said Don Woodrick, the group's Kentucky captain. "When a total stranger gets on a motorcycle in the middle of winter and drives 300 miles to hold a flag, that makes a powerful statement."
Across the nation, Patriot Guard riders number more than 5,000, and at least 14 states are considering laws aimed specifically at the funeral protest group led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, who believes U.S. deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that, he says, harbors homosexuals.
Countering Phelps by rallying around the fallen and supporting their families "is just the right thing to do. This is something America didn't do in the '70s," said Kurt Mayer, the Patriot Guard's national spokesman. "Whether we agree with why we're over there, these soldiers are dying to protect our freedoms."
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of Phelps and an attorney for the Topeka-based church, said neither state laws nor the Patriot Guard can silence their message that God killed the troops because they fought for a country that embraces homosexuals.
"The scriptures are crystal clear that when God sets out to punish a nation, it is with the sword. An IED is just a broken-up sword," Phelps-Roper said.
The church, not affiliated with a larger denomination, is made up mostly of Phelps's extended relatives.
During the 1990s, church members were known mostly for protesting the funerals of AIDS victims, and they have long been tracked as a hate group by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. The project's deputy director, Heidi Beirich, said other groups have tried to counter Phelps's message, but none has been as organized as the Patriot Guard.
"I'm not sure anybody has gone to this length to stand in solidarity," she said. "It's nice that these veterans and their supporters are trying to do something. I can't imagine anything worse; your loved one is killed in Iraq and you've got to deal with Fred Phelps."