When Richard Bennet, 25, a Marine corporal, was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq, his family hoped to bury him quietly in his hometown of Girard, Kansas. Unfortunately, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church decided to picket his funeral. The organization firmly believes that soldiers die in battle because God seeks to punish the United States for accepting homosexuality. Members of the organization carry signs reading “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “Semper Fi Semper Fags.”
Bennet’s family was understandably horrified to learn of the Westboro Baptist Church’s plans. The Patriot Guard, however, had also learned of the planned demonstration, and they offered to help protect the family from the ugliness. The Guard is a biker group, many of whom are veterans, who make a point of visiting military funerals to pay their respects, offer support – and shield mourners from the cruelty of the Westboro Baptist Church.
The Patriot Guard announced it would attend the funeral. On the day of the funeral, hundreds of members rode in on their motorcycles. Carrying American flags, the Patriot Guard formed a shield around the funeral, blocking the Westboro Baptist Church from view. They also played patriotic songs and revved their engines to drown out the hate-filled chants of the demonstrators.
Ken Van is both a veteran and a pastor, and he participates in Patriot Guard protective actions as often as he can. “No family should have to face this type of hatred on the day that they’re putting their loved ones to rest,” he said. “Bennet died defending our sacred freedoms, and he even died to give the fringe members of the Westboro Baptist Church the right to picket his own funeral, but just because they have the right to speak doesn’t mean we have to listen.”
The Patriot Guard was established in 2005, and it began life as part of the American Legion. Some Legion members were appalled to learn that certain religious groups were protesting at military funerals. They began to gather like-minded motorcyclists to shield mourners from such demonstrations.
The Patriot Guard’s website describes its purpose as “ensuring dignity and respect” at funerals and memorial services for veterans, first responders and members of the military. They attend funerals only when invited by the family of the deceased, and they use only non-violent methods of ensuring funerals are not disrupted by the Westboro Baptist Church and its ilk.