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William Rivers Pitt: Supporting the Troops

Supporting the Troops

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 24 August 2005

Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address spoke pointedly of caring "for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan," of the solemn responsibility held by this nation to those who served and died in her service. A plaque outside the Veterans Administration building in Washington, DC, bears these exact words. It is a motto, a mantra, and today, an utterly unfulfilled promise.

Consider the following.

The Bush administration's most recent budget framework includes $910 million in cuts to the Veterans Administration. 2,615 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and yet efforts to double the death benefit for soldiers killed in active duty have been forcefully resisted by the White House. Pay raises for soldiers have been capped. The tax-cut mantra of the White House has not trickled down far enough to assist the troops on the line; soldiers fighting overseas and soldiers deployed for extended periods have not been deemed worthy of even minimal tax relief, while billions of dollars in tax cuts are gifted to the wealthiest among us.

Nearly 20,000 soldiers have been wounded in Iraq, but must wait nearly six months before being seen by a VA hospital. The prescription co-pay costs for veterans were doubled in Bush's proposed 2005 budget. His 2004 proposed budget would have eviscerated funding for the education of military children. The White House formally opposed allowing National Guard and Reserve members access to the Pentagon's health care program. Perhaps worst of all, the White House quietly attempted to cut combat pay for all soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this measure was quickly scrapped after it became public.

This from the man whose staged photo-ops with serving soldiers have become the stuff of lore. This from the man whose defenders denounce critics with the line, "Why don't you support the troops?" This from an administration filled with officials who, almost to a man, had other priorities when they were called to serve.

The question of how, exactly, one can and should support the troops has been a live political hand grenade over the last several years. Do you support the troops by backing Bush and the Iraq occupation to the hilt? By quashing criticism because it might affect soldier morale? Or do you support the troops by advocating for their removal from the vortex of a failed and deadly policy?

These are, for sure and certain, questions of life and death. They are also, however, political questions all too often dominated by sound bytes and talking points. True assistance to American soldiers, within all this noise, is difficult to find.

Enter the Patriot Guard Riders.

It began with the funeral of Army Specialist Edward Lee Myers, who was killed in Iraq on July 27, 2005. His funeral was scheduled for August 5th, in St. Joseph, Missouri. Word got out that Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church intended to stage a protest demonstration at the funeral. Phelps and his group believe that America is doomed because of its tolerance for homosexuals, and sees the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq as divine judgment. They began showing up at soldier's funerals to broadcast this message.

D.C. "Big Dog" Hannah and his fellow veterans would have none of it. "The Missouri chapter of Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association," said Hannah in an interview, "established a plan to attend the funeral to shield Eddie's family from the protesters. CVMA contacted other groups; notably the VFW, American Legion and American Legion Riders (ALR), Leathernecks Motorcycle Club - made of current and former Marines - and the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club. On the day of the funeral, eight protesters stood in a ditch across the road from the church parking lot, waving signs and screaming obscenities. Among their group were four children, wearing t-shirts with obscene phrases. 20 bikers and 15 other veterans stood between them and the church. When the Phelpses chanted, the bikers drowned them out."

"One of those veterans' groups," continued Hannah, "was American Legion Post 136 in Mulvane, Kansas. Members of Post 136 moved past talking, to action. The ALR chapter at Post 136 met on the evening of August 7, and appointed a committee to organize an ALR service mission to honor fallen soldiers and shield their families from funeral protests. The officers of ALR Post 136 recognized the need to have other veterans' groups, civic groups, and regular citizens involved, and began to make contacts across Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. The group they organized gathered for the first time at the funeral of Army Sgt. John Doles on October 11 in Chelsea, Oklahoma. At that time, the group did not have a name, because it was an ALR service mission."

"The name 'Patriot Guard,'" continued Hannah, "was announced on October 27 at the funeral of SPC Lucas Franz of Tonganoxie, Kansas. The bikers from CVMA, Leathernecks, VVMA, and ALR, and vets from VFW and the American Legion, were joined by our brothers and sisters from the community. Total attendance was over 100 motorcycles and 200 people standing between the WBC and the family. I rode to that funeral, and stood proud and angry with good men and women who wanted to honor a soldier, and protect his family. Following a funeral Mission Ride in Redmond, Oklahoma, on November 8, Jeff Brown of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, talked to the Patriot Guard officers from Post 136, and formed a nationwide communications network. That network, the natural evolution of the Patriot Guard into a national organization, is today's 'Patriot Guard Riders.'"

There it is. Simple, eloquent and effective actions taken to respect and defend soldiers who offered that last full measure of devotion.

"Even as the Westboro Baptist Church fades into irrelevance," said Hannah, "our mission and focus remain to honor those who have given their lives in service, and to support their families and communities. We will be here long after Fred Phelps meets whatever justice waits for him after he draws his final breath. Because of the requests of families and community leaders to become involved, PGR expanded our mission to include funeral Mission Rides for veterans, particularly Vietnam vets; and law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services members killed in the line of duty. We are frequently invited to sendoff and welcome home events for military units. We were invited to attend the funerals for the Sago Miners in West Virginia, after the Westboro Baptist Church announced their protest."

"We also ride to raise funds for vets in VA hospitals and retirement homes," said Hannah, "and to visit those shut-in vets. Our 'Help on the Homefront' program organizes activities for veterans' support; activities and fundraisers for families with deployed members; and fundraisers for scholarship programs like the American Legacy Scholarship (an American Legion project for the children of military personnel killed in action)."

Anyone seeking to paint political motivations over the actions of the Patriot Guard Riders need not apply. "In the PGR," said Hannah, a self-described pagan, veteran and biker, "we leave our politics at the curb. I know Republicans and Democrats; liberals and conservatives; politically active and politically apathetic. I haven't met any Communists or Anarchists yet, but we may have them. Among the bikers, 'small L' libertarian philosophy is common. Older vets are more likely Republican than Democrat. Younger Riders, including new vets, may lean more to the left. I don't ask, and I don't care."

"Last month," said Hannah, "I was Ride Captain on a funeral Mission Ride for PFC Brian Bradbury of St. Joseph, Missouri. At the church, an achingly beautiful young woman wearing a T-shirt with a peace sign and 'I Ain't Gonna Study War No More' approached me. She handed me a page of poetry she had written and said, 'I feel like I had to come, but I don't know if I belong here.' I handed her a flag, walked her to the line in front of the church, and gave her a hug. She belongs, perhaps more than most of us do."

"Caring for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan," said Lincoln. The government isn't doing it; this administration, in particular, seems all too willing to create new veterans while dispensing with the systems of care that tend to them after their service is concluded. Men like Hannah, and the riders of the Patriot Guard, have taken matters into their own hands. They stand for the families of the fallen, they raise funds for disabled veterans and their families, and they do so for one simple reason.

They support the troops.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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