In sharing this story, I am having to rekindle emotions that I normally try not to revisit. Bear with me as I can assure you it will be written with many tears and much heartache.
Almost 10 years ago my husband and I went to the funeral of a young Marine, LC PL Ray Johnson. He was the barrack roommate of my son for over three years and we had gotten very close to him. In truth we were close to all the Marines my son served with, but his would be the first funeral we would have to attend.
The night before they deployed for the second time happened to be Johnson’s 23rd birthday and everyone went out for some drinks to celebrate.
The Marines work harder than any group of people you will ever meet, and they also play harder too. This pre-deployment birthday night celebration was no different and we were happy to be the designated drivers for them. After all, it was the last chance they had to forget where they were headed and what could happen.
A mere three weeks into the deployment, what we all feared could happen, did.
I have shared a little about Johnson and his amazing family in past columns like “Gold Star Mom” but there is so much I have chosen to keep to myself. It is not for me to share and I fear that I could not capture the pure heartache a family feels when they lose a child in service to our country. I can however share parts of my own journey on that day.
The funeral was to take place near Atlanta and another Marine who was with them on their first deployment, who had since been discharged from the service, asked to come with us. He was, of course, very welcome to join us. He later moved in with us, but that is another story for another time.
The trip down to Atlanta was uneventful. In fact, it was nice to have a Marine brother with us to share in stories as we drove. We got to the hotel, settled in and washed up to change for the service. Driving to the church we barely said a word, until we turned the corner and a collective gasp escaped from all of us.
We saw a hundred or so men and women in motorcycle attire surrounding the church. Some stood at attention while others held large American flags. Trust me, the sight of them was breathtaking. I mean it literally took our breath away. The only words spoken were from the marine that was with us as he exclaimed, “Oh, wow!”
We would later find out that this group of leather and denim clad men and women are called Patriot Guard Riders and they stand watch at military funerals to shield families of fallen heroes from those who would disrupt the services of their loved ones.
The Patriot Guard members engulfed us as we walked into the church. Each one bowing their heads to everyone as they passed. My husband and I were already in tears and we had barely entered the doorway of the church. The funeral would be unlike anything we had ever witnessed.
Since my son was so close to Johnson, being his barracks mate for three years, there were many pictures of the two of them together displayed around the church. On a big screen at the alter played a montage of Johnson’s life which of course included their platoon and my son. Then there was an 8-page program that was given out which included the same pictures with one added feature. It had the last letter Johnson ever wrote his family printed on the first page.
In the letter was a description of the first battle they encountered and it talked about how he and my son fought side by side.
I knew where they were going, and I knew it would be dangerous. However, seeing in black and white the reality of war while sitting at the funeral of a fallen Marine, as my son was still there fighting, was enough to drive this mother to the brink of madness.
Suffice it to say, that day produced more tears than I thought a person could hold.
The whole time the two-hour service was going on, the Patriot Guard stood protecting the sanctity of the service. Then, when we left the church to go to the burial sight, the Patriot Guard was right there by our side. Surrounding us in a circle as the twenty-one-gun salute echoed in the air.
It is hard to believe that anyone would ever want to protest a military funeral but there are people who do, and they were there to protect us from anyone who would even try.
The Patriot Guard’s motto reads “Standing for those who stood for us.” They were founded in 2005 and the patriotguard.org website states, “As our membership has grown, so has the scope of our mission. We also honor first responders as well as our military veterans. Additionally, we have an active Help On The Homefront (HOTH) program, which provides assistance to our veterans and their families.”
I never want anyone to have to see them standing at a funeral again, but I will never forget and forever be grateful to the Patriot Guard Riders for being there to protect us and honor the fallen.
They did not know us and they were not dressed like us, but on that day they stood for Johnson and his family and it was an awe-inspiring sight. God bless our military and those that protect them after they have protected us. Life is mysterious.