A welcome home with dignity

US Army Sgt. William Sanchez Jr., 28; a 2001 alumnus of Gilroy

When he stepped off the plane in San Jose for a visit to see his parents and siblings, U.S. Marine Cpl. Ryan Bennett, 24, had “no clue” that he would be greeted by two rows of patriotic strangers clad in biker gear, toting American flags and saluting just for him.
After nearly a seven-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, Bennett, a 2006 graduate of Live Oak High School, was greeted by the Patriot Guard Riders earlier this month – a nationwide nonprofit group of volunteers – most of whom were on motorcycles. The Patriot Guard Riders spend their spare time welcoming home soldiers, among other activities to support U.S. military personnel. Also there to greet him were his parents, Erica and John Bennett, brothers Kyle, 27, Billy, 15, and sister Megan, 16.
“I was shocked by the welcoming,” Ryan Bennett said.
He returned to the States Feb. 21 – to Newburn, North Carolina – and then to Morgan Hill via the San Jose Airport March 3. Bennett joined the Marine Corps just after high school, in July 2006. His tour in Afghanistan started in August 2011, and he served at Camp Leatherneck among other places, as a direct air support operator.
“Our family is very proud of Ryan for his dedication to our country, and the sacrifice he’s making,” said his mother Erica Bennett. “When he signed up, it was guaranteed he would be going off to war. It was very scary for the family, but it’s something Ryan was trained to do.”
From the airport, about 16 Patriot Guard motorcycle riders and three PGR “cage drivers” escorted Bennett and his family to his parents’ home on Grand Prix Way in Morgan Hill, the outside of which was decorated with American flags. On the way, the motorcycle riders controlled traffic and surrounded the family’s car, while fellow motorists honked their horns and gave thumbs-up. Even the exit off U.S. 101 to East Dunne Avenue was lined with American flags.
When Erica Bennett, 43, called the PGR to ask them to help welcome home her son, she didn’t know the riders would provide such an enthusiastic greeting. “They went above and beyond our expectation.”
When they arrived at the family home, the guard riders performed a ceremony in which they gave Ryan and his mother – a “Blue Star” mom (a nationwide organization of mothers of active soldiers and veterans) – a commemorative coin recognizing their sacrifices. Their neighbors joined in the celebration.
Ryan Bennett spent a few days visiting family and friends in Morgan Hill and surrounding areas while home, and has since gone back to his assignment in North Carolina. He didn’t even know the Patriot Guard existed before he came home for a visit this month.
“I think it’s awesome. I’m thankful they’re there to give us that welcome, and my family was thankful,” he said.
Roots of Patriot Guard
Dedicated rider Mark Zappa, 53 of Gilroy, explained PGR was founded in 2005, as a response to members of the controversial Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which was becoming infamous at the time for protesting the funeral services for troops who died in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which started in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
Zappa is a “ride captain” for the Patriot Guard. While the group’s original goal was to shield the mourning families from the protesters outside funeral services by forming a motorcycle-mounted “human shield” around the rabble-rousers, it has since expanded to perform welcome-home missions such as Ryan Bennett’s, as well as to escort the remains of deceased veterans and soldiers killed in action – and their families – to the services and burial sites. They also assist in a number of efforts and fundraisers to support veterans, and they ride in Memorial Day parades and attend car shows.
As the ride captain, Zappa supervises the missions that he participates in and helps coordinate with the families, local police and funeral homes.  
The Patriot Guard is not partisan. The group does not behold any party affiliation or political stance.
“I don’t think anybody likes war,” said Zappa, who owns his own business – Zappa Form Printing and Promotions – allowing him to take time off for PGR activities. “This area has given a lot of people, and I want all the wars to be over so our soldiers can live in peace.”
But while they’re willingly putting their lives in danger for their families and countrymen, the troops should be respected and appreciated, Zappa said.
Zappa is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who served in the Cold War era. Overseas, he served in the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska. He noted that many of the PGR members – and some of the most devoted ones – are Vietnam War veterans. Zappa knows many Vietnam veterans who were disrespected by American civilians who disagreed with the government’s participation in that conflict, and hence one of the PGR’s mottos is “Never again.”
“Anyone who has been in the military knows you don’t do it for the pay,” he said. “It’s for the service to your country. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. The least we can do is say ‘welcome home’ and ‘thank you.’ It has a great effect on the soldiers. They think they’re stuck in the sandbox and nobody cares. But we do, because it’s a huge sacrifice.”
The PGR now has 200,000 members nationwide. They only perform welcome-home missions and attend funerals when invited by the families.
Morgan Hill resident Michael Jordan, 49, has been a PGR rider on his 2005 Harley-Davidson Soft Tail Deluxe for about three years and has been on “countless” missions including the Bennett welcome. His flexible schedule at his job with the Santa Clara Valley Water District allows him to participate.
Jordan served in the U.S. Navy from 1981 to 1985, as a diver stationed in Hawaii for most of that time.
He learned about the PGR the same way many younger veterans did – through news coverage of the group’s early years responding to the funeral protesters. He noted the irony of the protesters’ ultimate result of producing the organized supporters.
“The protesters started doing something bad and ended up creating this good thing out of it, with all these vets getting involved,” Jordan said. He added, “We don’t do this for our own glory. We do this for the love of our country. I feel my service hasn’t ended, and I’m doing my part.”
However he admitted that the reactions of the homecoming soldiers almost bring him to tears. “To see a mom hug her son – it’s rewarding, to say the least.”
Cliff Bruner, 57 of Gilroy, is “kind of not the norm” for a PGR member, he said. He’s not a veteran and he doesn’t ride a motorcycle – but neither is a requirement for becoming a member. “The organization is open to anybody that wants to come out and support our troops,” he said.
Bruner and his wife, Chris, are known as “cage drivers.” With Cliff at the wheel, they ride in their Chevrolet Tahoe sport-utility vehicle on missions, carrying American flags that other riders will display to welcome the arriving soldiers. In advance of the PGR entourage’s arrival, they decorate the families’ homes, street rights-of-way and freeway medians that line the homeward routes from the airport with American flags.
“We carry all the gear for them – flags, food, water, first-aid supplies,” Cliff Bruner said. They help with traffic control, and sometimes place rotating, flashing lights on top of the vehicle to assist in that end.
Bruner was motivated to join the PGR after his father, a World War II and Navy veteran, died about two years ago. Cliff and his family invited the PGR to the funeral, but a miscommunication left the riders absent. Within days after the funeral he received scores of e-mails and apologies from PGR members from all over the country. Impressed by that response, Bruner decided to join so he could help out himself.
“These past two years some of the local (PGR members) have become my closest friends,” Bruner said.
The Bruners work at the same aerospace company in Silicon Valley. Their schedules for time off and vacations often coincide, and they use most of that time to go on PGR missions.
Cliff can recount story after story of the missions he has been on, with a mixture of fondness, humility and, occasionally, with sorrow. He’s helped the families of soldiers who came home with post traumatic stress disorder. The couple has been on Easter basket runs with PGR, helped with fundraisers for mothers of Blue Star troops (active-duty military personnel), and they attend car shows with the riders.
‘It never gets easy’
In Gilroy last month, the Bruners participated in “one of best welcome-home rides we ever had” when U.S. Army Sgt. William Sanchez, 28, returned home Feb. 19 after a nine-month tour in Afghanistan. Sanchez, a single parent of two boys, was greeted at the San Jose Airport by his family and 40 members of the PGR, who escorted Sanchez all the way home to Gilroy. Sanchez’s two sons, Landen, 4; and Jayden, 7; were present at the airport to greet their father with big bear hugs.
Sanchez’s parents, William and Georgina Sanchez, also surprised their son by bringing his motorcycle to the airport so he could ride home alongside the Patriot Guard Riders.
In typical PGR-organized fanfare, en route to Gilroy Sanchez was acknowledged by the Gilroy Fire and Police Departments. Firefighters parked their engines and saluted Sanchez from two different highway overpasses; the GPD assisted with a smooth passage to Luchessa Avenue. A number of people also lined the streets and waved American flags.
Georgina said her two grandsons enjoy Skyping with their father while he’s “at work.”
That’s how William refers to his service as a soldier, Georgina says, “because it’s his job to help protect our country.”
PGR members came from as far away as Sacramento and Prunedale for that mission, Cliff Bruner said.
Not all the missions bring that large an entourage, but Zappa noted there’s always a core group of devotees who show up for every mission, no matter how early in the morning or what the weather looks like.
Most of the PGR missions lately have been homecomings, and they’re expecting a lot more in the coming months with the country’s involvement in Iraq winding down and Afghanistan tours rotating out. Despite the polarity between the happiness of the homecomings versus the grief of funerals, the riders feel they’re at least equally important and they don’t practice a preference for one over the other – they go wherever they’re needed. In fact, they often ride much longer distances to attend the funerals.
Bruner, Jordan and Zappa have lost count of how many missions they’ve been on; though Bruner and Zappa guess they’ve participated in more than 100 missions since they joined. Zappa, a Patriot Guard Rider for about four years, has been on about 20 missions in Gilroy, including the funeral for Army Staff Sgt. David Gutierrez, 35, who died in Afghanistan Christmas Day 2009. He left behind three young sons and his wife Patty.
“That was heart-breaking,” Zappa said. “It never gets easy (to attend funerals). The killed-in-action funerals tend to be more difficult because they’re young. The welcome-homes are kind of an antidote.”

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