By graveside, a family mourns for the loss of Joe Woltmon, a World War II veteran and purple heart recipient. Solemn leather-clad Patriot Guard Riders form a circle around them, each holding an American flag, creating a silent cocoon of protection and support. Their concern is felt in the deep rumble of their motorcycles and seen upon furrowed brows.
As a Patriot Guard Rider, Tom Jefferies, 69, has attended more than 500 events honoring military service members. He immigrated to the United States as a child, and says he loves this country even more because he had to work for his citizenship.
"We hope in some small way we've made it easier to deal with," he said about the Woltmon funeral. "Although we don't know them it feels like we're closer because it gives us a chance to show that we care."
"It's my way of saying thank you for what you do," he said. "I cherish the freedom those people have dedicated their lives to giving."
Contrasting from the somber mood of paying their final respects at a funeral are the jubilant welcome-homes that the Patriot Guard Riders attend when military members come home from tours overseas. Jefferies thinks of his own two sons who currently serve in the military as he claps his hands and hollers joyously at the tired young airmen descending from the escalator at Sacramento International Airport earlier this month. Standing in a circle the Patriot Guard Riders create a spectacle of patriotic gratitude, discouraging any possibility of protesters tarnishing the troops first precious moments back home.
"When you see a serviceman coming down the stairs and a 3-year-old child hugs them the tears come," Jefferies says. "To be a part of making that happen for them, it makes me feel warm and rosy inside."
The Patriot Guard Riders are a national organization made up of mostly motorcyclists, but anyone can join them on what they call "missions." They only attend events that they are invited to. To learn more about the Patriot Guard Riders and how you can join them visit www.patriotguard.org.
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