2008 Memorial Day Speech
Apple Valley American Legion, Post 1776
Ladies and gentlemen, members of Post 1776, assembled guests, thank you for coming today.
As Mr. Cybart said, my name is Nate Zenker, also known as “Birdie”, I am the Metro area Senior Ride Captain from the Minnesota Patriot Guard, which is the local organization of the Patriot Guard Riders. It is an honor to stand before you today to speak on this Memorial Day.
I would like to begin by reading a poem. It was written for the dedication of the monument erected in honor of our nation’s first battle, and those who fought and died there on 19 April, in the year 1775. As we gather here at Veteran’s Park, near the Post 1776 Veterans Memorial it seems fitting. It is called “The Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept,
Alike the Conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone,
That memory may their deed redeem,
When like our sires our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and Thee.
For generations our nation has called on its citizens to stand and fight against tyranny and oppression. From the farmers who first picked up their muskets and fired that “Shot heard round the world” from their own farm fields, to the modern warriors currently serving in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, they have all answered that call. Time and time again, young men and women have stood up and said: “send me”. Send me, to liberate the oppressed. Send me, to end tyranny, Send me, to defend the God-given rights of my friends, my family, and my fellow citizens. It has been said that a Veteran is someone who has written a check, payable to “The United States of America”, for any amount up to, and including, their life. Today we gather to honor all of those who have paid the ultimate price.
Memorial Day, to me, is our most sacred national holiday. While Independence Day celebrates our birth as a nation, Memorial Day celebrates the heroes who have given up their lives to secure that Independence for two hundred and thirty three years. When I was asked to come here today to speak, there was a quote at the bottom of the message, and it is one that I think properly describes why this day is a celebration:
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived”. General George S. Patton
Today is a day to celebrate the lives of all those Americans who have died on the field of battle in the name of freedom.
I come before you today, not to speak from the perspective of a Veteran, because I am not a Veteran. I am the son of a Veteran, the grandson of a Veteran, the nephew of a Veteran, the cousin of a Veteran, and a friend of many Veterans. Today I speak from the perspective of an ordinary citizen who is in constant awe of the service and the sacrifice members of our armed forces are willing to make. The Patriot Guard Riders was formed for the purpose of honoring that service and sacrifice.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the name “Patriot Guard Riders” or “Minnesota Patriot Guard” locally, we may be better known as “the bikers who show up at funerals with flags.” Ours is a young organization, founded in August of 2005 by several members of the American Legion Riders from Post 136 in Mulvane, Kansas. I’d like to tell you now about how the Patriot Guard came to be.
A group from a religious sect based in Topeka, Kansas has, for some time, been showing up at the funerals of American Servicemen and Women to protest outside of the services. Carrying signs that read “thank God for dead soldiers” and other hate-filled messages I won’t repeat here, they came with the intent of disrupting the funerals, and garnering attention for themselves. Their reasoning was that God was killing American troops because of our nation’s tolerance of homosexuals.
When Carol Hauck, wife of Legion Rider Terry Houck, learned that this group had disrupted the funeral services of a soldier nearby in Oklahoma, she grabbed Terry, elbowed him in the ribs, and said “You and the guys from the Legion Riders should do something about this”. Together, they created a plan for riding to the funerals and showing sincere respect to our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities. Terry discussed the plan with other members of Kansas American Legion Riders, and the Patriot Guard was born. Let this be a lesson – when someone you know elbows you in the ribs, it may not be to kid around; it may be to come up with an idea to form a great patriotic organization!
Our primary mission as an organization is to attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family. Unlike a protest or counter-protest group, if the family does not want the Patriot Guard to attend the services, we will stay home, and honor their hero from afar. We have two objectives for these missions:
1. To show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities, and
2. To shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors.
We accomplish both objectives using strictly legal and non-violent means. Regardless of whether or not the presence of any protesters is expected, the Patriot Guard will proudly stand to honor the heroes who have sacrificed their lives in defense of our freedom. Our mission is really a very simple one. We gather and we stand holding flags in honor of heroes. In effect, we are there to try to provide a red, white, and blue blanket of comfort and security for the families of the fallen. On the occasions where a group does decide to protest outside the funeral, we provide a non-confrontational visual barrier between the protesters and the service. The goal being that when the family and friends walk or look outside, instead of protestors they see a wall of American Flags.
As much as our greatest desire is that we could take away the pain from the loss of a loved one, we know that cannot be done. Instead we hope and pray that our heroes’ families may find some comfort in the knowledge that citizens of this country did not allow the passing of their husband, wife, son, daughter, sister, brother, or friend to go unnoticed. That people came, with compassion, and stood silently with a flag to honor their hero. Make no mistake, when we come and when we go, you will most certainly hear, and quite possibly feel, the rumble. But when we stand that flag line in the presence of a fallen hero and their family, the only sound you are likely to hear is that of Old Glory flapping in the breeze.
Our members come from all walks of life. Just to name a few, I know we have police officers, firefighters, school teachers, mechanics, truck drivers, accountants, business professionals, salespeople, printers, and almost any other profession you could imagine. As our mission statement says: “We don’t care what you ride or if you ride, what your political views are, or whether you’re a hawk or a dove. It is not a requirement that you be a veteran. It doesn't matter where you’re from or what your income is; you don’t even have to ride. The only prerequisite is Respect.” Many of our members are Veterans themselves, many, like me, are not; and that in and of itself makes the Patriot Guard a unique organization.
Until now there has never been an organized outlet for ordinary American citizens to stand up and do something to support those who are serving in our Armed Forces and their families, and to pay our respects to them when they give their life in that service. Those who serve in our military have taken an oath that gives them a duty to defend our nation. As citizens we also have a duty. Our duty is to honor their service and their sacrifice, and to remember the fallen.
At the end of February in 2006 I was sitting in a hotel room in Washington DC and I read a newspaper article that a friend sent me about the funeral for Corporal Andrew Kemple. It talked about a group protesting at his funeral and what they were saying and doing. At the end of the article it also talked about this group of bikers who had come out to drown out the message of hate with one of love. He sent it to me because he knew how I felt about our military, and he knew I loved to ride. When I read that article I thought to myself that was a group I'd like to find out more about. A few weeks later I was contemplating buying a new bike, and as I started to think about getting out on the open road I remembered that I wanted to check out that group, the problem was I just couldn’t remember the name.
Eventually, thanks to the miracles of the internet and Google, I found the website for the Patriot Guard. When I read the mission statement and looked around at what I saw there something opened up inside my heart. I realized that this was something I had to do. It wasn’t something that I thought was cool, or that might be fun or interesting. Instead I felt like I had no other choice but to sign up and do whatever I could. It was time for me to stand up and do my duty. Since then, I have been to too many funerals for too many heroes to be able to tell you a story about each hero today, but there are a few I would like to share with you.
My first mission was in the town of Ladysmith, WI for SSG Nathan Vacho, US Army Reserve, KIA, Iraq, 5 May, 2006. SSG Vacho was not only an Army Reservist, he was also a firefighter, a nurse, a husband, and a father. I can still remember asking my boss for the vacation time, and him looking at me quizzically, saying "You're going to do what?" I can remember everything about that day to a T. I can tell you what clothes I was wearing, I can tell you what the weather was like, I can tell you the conversations I had and who the first member of the Patriot Guard was that I met that day. In those early days usually the conversations involved a lot of questions like “What are we supposed to do?” The response back then was usually: “I have no idea, let’s just stand here and hold our flags”.
Later that year, in December, I was at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport sitting and having breakfast while I was waiting for my flight. Just before I got up to leave, a soldier walked in and sat down a few tables away from me. I walked over to him simply wanting to thank him for his service. As I approached him, I saw his rank, and read his name, and realized that the man I was about to speak to was CSM John Vacho, SSG Nathan Vacho’s father. I won’t get into the details of our conversation, but having seen and spoken with John many times since then, I think it is safe to say it is a moment neither of us will forget. Sadly the communities of Ladysmith, and nearby Weyerhauser, Wisconsin, lost three more heroes in the present conflicts.
SSG Patrick Lybert, United States Army, KIA, Afghanistan, 21 June, 2006.
LCpl Andrew Matus, United States Marine Corps, KIA, Iraq, 21 January, 2007.
And SFC Anthony Wasielewski, United States Army Reserve, who passed away at home on 7 October, 2007 while recovering from injuries sustained from an IED in Iraq. The Patriot Guard stood to honor all four of those heroes.
Another hero I would like to tell you a little about is SSG James Wosika, Jr, Minnesota Army National Guard, KIA, Iraq, 9 January, 2007. While on patrol with the members of his squad near Fallujah, SSG Wosika and his men came upon a suspicious vehicle. SSG Wosika ordered his men to stay back and approached the vehicle to inspect it alone. As he approached an explosive device detonated killing him. For his heroic actions which saved the lives of the men under his command SSG Wosika was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star. While planning the mission for SSG Wosika I received an e-mail that I would like to read to you now.
Dear Sir or Ma'am,
I am writing on behalf of "The Outlaws". This group is made up of the infantry soldiers that spent most of Jim's career with him. I had the honor and privilege of being Jim's squad leader from the time he came in to the end of our tour in Kosovo. Jim's was one of the genuinely kind souls one rarely encounters throughout life. He had a way of putting a smile on your face even when things were at their worst. I want to thank you for taking the time out of your lives to provide this ride for Jim and his family. Jim died doing what he believed in and a part of the Outlaws died with him on the 9th of January. I hope that your ride finds you in fair skies and the sun shining so it will be a reminder of what Jim was like. Thank you.
SFC René Montero
It is not every day that you get messages sent to you from a soldier in a combat zone, to tell you a little bit about the buddy they lost.
Thankfully, not every Patriot Guard mission is for a funeral. Last July we were given the opportunity to help welcome home more than 2600 Minnesota National Guardsmen as they returned home from the longest deployment of any combat unit in the Global War on Terror. The solders of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 34th Infantry division were deployed for 22 months, including 16 months in country in Iraq. These soldiers served with distinction, and I was honored to be able to shake the hands of and personally welcome home more than half of those soldiers.
We escorted them from the Minnesota border back to their home armories where they were reunited with their families, while other Patriot Guard members were standing by with the families to greet them as they arrived. I have never repeatedly witnessed and experienced as much joy as I did over those two weeks in July. There were a lot of interesting things to hear from these soldiers as they returned home. They universally were all happy to see green grass and trees again. It’s not too hard to understand that. I also recall on a 90 degree day hearing a few of them complain about how “cool” the weather was, while that might have seemed strange to us, they were, of course, coming home from a place where summer temperatures are routinely above 120 degrees.
There was one particular comment from a soldier on the first day of the welcome homes that really hit me hard. He said, “We’ve been gone so long that we figured by the time we got home everyone would have forgotten about us.” Sadly, there is a part of the history of our nation when returning soldiers were not treated with kindness and respect. For many of those who returned home from Viet Nam the welcome they received was not the heroes welcome they deserved. At this time I would like any Viet Nam Veterans we have here today to stand up. I want to personally, today, say to you all, thank you for your service, and welcome home. Please join me now in welcoming these heroes home.
One of the things that we often say in the Patriot Guard is an unofficial motto. Although it is only two short words, they have a very powerful meaning. Those two words are: “Never Again”. When we say “Never Again”, we mean that:
Never again, will the loss of a hero go unnoticed.
Never again, will our citizens allow protestors to disrupt the sanctity of a funeral for our fallen heroes.
Never again, will a soldier return home to be spat upon.
Never again, will the citizens of the United States allow the service and sacrifice of our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen, and our marines to be dishonored or disrespected.
I make this promise to you: as long as members of the Patriot Guard draw breath, never again.
May God watch over all those serving in harm’s way and bless them with His protecting hand.