Bikers on guard at war funerals for soldiers

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The sound of outraged patriotism is echoing across the American heartland like rolling thunder.

INDIANA–Mounted on earth-trembling Harley-Davidsons, a volunteer army is shielding grieving families from Christian fundamentalists claiming that the deaths of US soldiers are punishment from God for homosexuality.

Marshalling more than 200 bikes for a military funeral in hardbitten Kokomo, the Indiana “state captain” of the Patriot Guard Riders, Richard Wilbur, was loathe to discuss the protests.

His rally was to honour a fallen soldier, Sgt Rickey Jones of the 101st Airborne Division, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, said Mr Wilbur, surrounded by bikers in leathers to protect against the Midwestern cold.

But he acknowledged that its turnout was greatly increased by the expected presence of pickets from the fanatically homophobic Westboro Baptist Church.

“It’s what this young soldier has died for – the right to protest,” the former detective admitted, recognising an irony…

     

But despite the demonstrators’ noxious message, there would be no violence, he promised.

“This is a noble cause,” he said, surveying the bikers. “Although there are a few people here who I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, even as a policeman with a gun, this brings out the best in people.”

The bikers’ aim is simple: to ensure that the dead man’s family cannot hear the protests, by drowning them out, or see them, by creating a wall of flags. When the protesters start to shout, the bikers chant back. Sometimes they add a revving Harley engine or taped music.

Such countermeasures are now well rehearsed; Westboro’s zealots have in recent months disrupted more than 100 Iraq and Afghan war funerals.

Members of the Kansas-based church, formed by an “old school” Baptist with no known links to mainstream Baptists, hold up banners suggesting that God is killing the soldiers to show His anger at tolerance of homosexuality. A spokesman for the church, Shirley Phelps-Roper, told one newspaper: “Our goal is to help the nation connect the dots. You turn this nation over to the fags and our soldiers come home in body bags.”

“God loves IEDs” (roadside bombs), and “Thank God for dead troops”, read the banners they hold aloft.

Most Americans have been appalled. But while politicians wrung their hands and police forces bemoaned the absence of any laws to stop the protests, the bikers acted.

They came together last summer, a diverse mix of groups such as the Christian Motorcycle Ministry, the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association and even some Hell’s Angels.

Starting small, they pooled information on planned funerals and agreed to respect the dead and attend funerals only when invited by the family. Their message of respect and decency has now touched the American soul.

In Kokomo, the funeral passed off without incident, and without Westboro members, even though police believed they had been in town. “God lost ’em in the fog,” one biker remarked cheerily.

Others suggested that they had been scared off by a newly passed Indiana law, which criminalises disruptive behaviour within 500 ft of a funeral. Those convicted face up to three years in prison.

The presence of large numbers of policemen, including a riot squad, might have helped as well.

But whatever the reason, their non-appearance felt like victory to the Riders and the people of Kokomo.

As the body of Sgt Jones was driven around his home town one last time, thousands of locals emerged into the bone-chilling winter air to pay their respects.

Shop and restaurant staff, diners, telecoms and road repair crews, car mechanics, policemen, firemen and schoolchildren converged at the roadside, some openly weeping, as the cortege passed by.

They waved at the Riders and the Riders waved back. One little girl in a pink coat was seen holding up a sign that read: “See U in Heaven Rickey.”

The Riders website yesterday posted the notice: “Mission complete – Sgt Rickey Jones of Kokomo, Indiana, 21.” Below were the details of another 23 impending funerals of Iraq war dead.

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