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Patriot Guard Riders honor fallen military personnel

By JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
Monday, May 26, 2008

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A 4-year-old boy named Kole approached a group of men holding flags outside a funeral home in Follansbee, W.Va. The boy asked each man his name, and then shook their hands to thank them for honoring his dad -- Sergeant Charles John "C.J." McClain, who was killed in Afghanistan a month earlier.

The boy had said he wanted to meet the <Patriot Guard Riders, volunteers committed to paying respects to service men and women who have given their lives for their country.

The scene played out 18 months ago, but Barry Bioni of Cecil, Washington County, has vivid memories of its impact on him.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the place," says Bioni, 61, a Patriot Guard Rider and Pennsylvania assistant state captain, who has attended 60 funerals in 2 1/2 years. "You can't believe the impact that child had on us. There were 50- and 60-year-old men there, who, after they shook that little boy's hand, broke down in tears. That this child had the initiative to wonder why we were there was amazing. He didn't cry. He was a pillar."

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On Thursday, another such encounter among a father and son and the Patriot Guard Riders took place in Zelienople. This time it was James Brown, 44, grieving for his 20-year-old son, Army Pfc. Matthew Brown, who was killed in Afghanistan on May 11.

"The Patriot Guard Riders are excellent," Brown said after the service. "I spoke with every one of them out there and shook every one of their hands to thank them. We really appreciate them being here."

One of those was Jim Turek, 60, of Grove City, who was the Ride Captain for the mission. He says Brown talked about how much he loved his son and how much he and his son loved their country.

With Memorial Day observed today, people will pause to remember those killed in war. But the Patriot Guard Riders think about service men and women nearly every day of the year.

On May 14, they waited at the Pittsburgh airport for the return of U.S. Army Air Force Cadet Ernest "Glenn" Munn, missing for 65 1/2 years. His plane crashed during a World War II training mission Nov. 18, 1942.

The Patriot Guard Riders presented a plaque to his three sisters, formed a flag line around the hearse, and escorted the body to an Ohio funeral home.

"They are really, really special people to have taken their time and money to be there for us," says Munn's sister, Lois Shriver, 83, of Emsworth. "We will never forget that they were there for our brother. It is amazing what they do, and I know the families appreciate it."

So do the funeral directors.

Patrick Boylan of Boylan Funeral Home says the Patriot Guard Riders have been of great assistance to him because they are familiar with the details of a military funeral.

"They have afforded me the opportunity to spend more time helping the family through a difficult time," Boylan says.

Not much stops the Patriot Guard Riders.

They have stood for hours in below-zero temperatures hoisting American flags at airports, ridden motorcycles while golf ball-sized hail smacked them in the face and approached dehydration from extreme heat.

The Patriot Guard Riders were formed in August 2005 in Kansas when they shielded the family mourning the death of Sgt. John Doles from anti-war protesters. Since that time, there have been 140,000 individuals in the group at one time or another, according to Karl Goblinger, 64, of Latrobe.

The Patriot Guard Riders are not part of the military and try to avoid confrontation. Most ride motorcycles, but that is not a prerequisite. Some are veterans. Others are businessmen, teachers and laborers. They are men and women who come from several nationalities and age groups. And they cover their own expenses.

They don't ask for recognition. They only ask what they can do for the family, says Patriot Guard Rider Joe Cumblidge, 58, of Proctor, W.Va., who previously spent 10 years in the Coast Guard.

"It has to come from within a person's heart, because of the emotional toll it takes," he says. "This is never easy."

U.S. Army Captain Eric Gass, 42, a Norwin High School graduate, says the Patriot Guard Riders protect the families from what he calls the media's negative spin on death in the military.

"The Patriot Guard Riders act as a buffer between the truth and the lies about men and women who fight for this great country," Gass said. "Does the family appreciate them being there? They absolutely do."

Goblinger, who served in the National Guard, wouldn't allow recent back surgery to keep him from honoring Munn. He and Bioni, who has a broken leg, rode in a car.

"This is an honor and a way to praise our soldiers for the freedom they are fighting for," says Goblinger, who has done 80 missions. "When I was in the military, I lost buddies, so this is hard, very hard, but you have to appreciate what freedom is all about.

"When these young kids sign up, they want to serve their country," he says. They are not asking to be killed. Yes, we shed a lot of tears. That is why you see a lot of dark glasses. But we try to stay strong for the families. Sometimes it is hard to keep the tears from coming."

The Patriot Guard Riders help families with closure, says Ralph DeLorme, 59, of Vandergrift, who is retired from the U.S. Army and has attended 56 missions in two years.

"It is an honor to be part of it," he says. "Being a Patriot Guard Rider is dedication 24/7. I don't know any other way to describe it."

Members have been known to drop whatever they are doing to make a ride.

The families certainly know the Patriot Guard Riders are there.

"I kept looking at them in the (side-view) mirror," says another of Munn's sisters, Jeanne Pyle, 87, of St. Clairsville, Ohio. "I thought, hey, they must be cold. But when I asked them, they said they weren't. They are a pretty special group, and we appreciate all they did to welcome home our brother and others like him."

Sometimes, it's difficult to return for the next mission, DeLorme says.

"When you see families such as Munn's three sisters -- they are the reason we do this," says Ed Romero, of Youngstown, Ohio, who led the Munn mission. "They appreciate that we are here, and that makes it all worthwhile. (Munn) died before I was even born. Most vets weren't welcomed home very well, so we want to honor them for their service to our country."

The Munn mission was the first for Jason Bruno, 31, from Wheeling, W.Va., who says this is about offering his support and giving the soldiers the respect they deserve.

"I have friends who are veterans, and I think this gives them closure," he says. "I know it is hard, but I am glad they found him and could bring him home. I know this is my first mission, but I am prepared because I have done my research and talked to the other guys. I want to do this. It is in my heart. It has to be in your heart, or you wouldn't last very long. You have to want to do it."

Ron Jones, 52, of Tridelphia, W.Va., an assistant state captain for West Virginia, keeps returning because he believes the Patriot Guard Riders help make things a little easier for the families.

"We've made a promise to these families," Jones says. "We certainly can't take away the pain, but we can let them know we are there for them and that we honor and respect the service of their loved one. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to. We realize that soldiers such as Munn have given us the right to be standing here right now. And we will never forget it, and we want their families to know we will never forget it."

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop can be reached at or 412-320-7889.
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