When Mike Lambert returned from Vietnam in 1970, a stranger in a Grand Prairie convenience store punched him, knocking him to the floor. Lambert never even saw the man’s face.
“People were fed up with [the war] and they blamed people who were in the military,” said Lambert, who served as a combat rescue swimmer for three years in Vietnam and retired after 22 years in the Navy. “You couldn’t hitchhike because people would throw Coke bottles and beer bottles at you. There was no place you could go because you couldn’t hide the haircut.”
The Eagle Mountain Lake resident, 66, was determined that no member of the military would go through what he did. Lambert was a natural fit for the Patriot Guard Riders.
The group formed in Mulvane, Kan., in 2005 after Westboro Baptist Church threatened to protest the funeral of a service member in Oklahoma. Members of American Legion Post 136 rounded up motorcyclists and headed to Oklahoma to stand shoulder to shoulder to prevent the family from seeing the protestors. A nonprofit group was established soon after, dedicated to holding American flags at funerals for military members and first responders and escorting their remains.
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The Patriot Guard Riders moved into Texas a year later and now have 11 regions and 22,000 members, 2,200 of them in North Texas. Lambert, who has been a member since 2007, is the Texas state captain.
“I know what I faced when I came back from Vietnam,” Lambert said. “We have an all-volunteer military. If we don’t stand up for them, they’re not going to be there. The Patriot Guard is not a protest group or an anti-protest group. We’re there to show respect to family and the community.”
The biggest problem the group faced was the protestors from Westboro, an unaffiliated church in Topeka, Kan., that pickets funerals of military members and high-profile people.
“They were the only problem,” Lambert said. “We don’t acknowledge them at all. We refer to them as ‘uggs’ — uninvited guests. If you acknowledge them, they’ve won. We attend these services as invited guests of the families. If protestors show up, we form a flag line so the family doesn’t see them. Men and women line up shoulder to shoulder holding American flags so the family doesn’t receive any disrespect from these people.
“In January of this year, the Texas state Legislature passed a law to prohibit protests of funerals,” he said. “They have to be a couple of blocks away.”
Although the protestors are no longer an issue, requests for the Patriot Guard Riders are increasing.
“The Patriot Guard is morphing into something different. There are not as many [service members killed in action] coming in, [so] we’re there for the veterans and first responders,” Lambert said. “Sometimes we’re doing as many as six funerals in a day. If the family requests it, we do everything we can to accommodate the family. It’s not about the motorcycles, it’s not about the individuals — it’s about showing respect to the families and service members.
“There’s a feeling when you’re holding an American flag and a flag-draped coffin passes by,” he said.
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders don’t pay dues, attend meetings, wear uniforms or even have to own a motorcycle. There are no paid employees, Lambert said.
“There are two requirements: Show up and show respect,” said Randy Smith, a Patriot Guard Rider from Midlothian. “We feel chosen to honor the families, to let them know there are people that care, that they can turn to.”
The riders, who can look like a hard-core motorcycle group in leather and denim, are actually airline pilots, mechanics, doctors, and most are older, Lambert said.
“In order to have that really nice bike, you can’t ride like a fool,” he said. “It costs too much to fix it. The reason they wear the leather is not to look mean. If you go down on that bike, leather slides 8 feet better than denim. You’re going to be sliding anyway. After 6 feet, you’ve worn through the denim.”
Those tough-looking riders pay an emotional price, even if they are not physically hurt, said Ted Waldron, 70, a ride captain with the Patriot Guard Riders from Mansfield.
“That’s why we wear dark glasses,” said Waldron, who served 13 years with the Marines and 19 years with the Air Force and Air National Guard. “We had four veterans that were being interred, and we were the only ones there. That was rough.”
Waldron remembers an even more difficult day.
“We were waiting for a KIA from Afghanistan, 109 bikes,” he said. “I could see the family get out and there were two little kids. They had signs they’d painted. On the signs, it said, ‘Welcome home, Daddy.’
“That was probably the toughest,” Waldron said. “That will never go away, that picture.”
It takes an emotional toll on the riders, said Ken DuBois, deputy state captain from Burleson.
“Most of the veterans are older. Their time is expected — it’s a part of life,” he said. “Then you have young soldiers who die for your and my freedom. That makes it difficult.”
People are starting to understand what the Patriot Guard Riders do and to appreciate them,
“When I’m out and about on my own, I find notes on my windshield thanking me for what we do,” DuBois said.
And they’re not going anywhere, Lambert said.
“The Patriot Guard will be around until the last soldier is laid to rest,” he said. “A lot of our riders are Vietnam veterans. We learned from that. People understand now. We see outpourings from the community. The schools turn out. If you’re escorting a soldier home, you see first- and second-graders holding pictures of flags they made or Mom and Pop holding the flag next to the tractor. It causes you to tear up.”