Fort Campbell, Ky. — Wearing vests covered in military patches, a band of motorcyclists rolls around the country from one soldier’s funeral to another, cheering respectfully to overshadow jeers from church protesters.
They call themselves the Patriot Guard Riders, and they are more than 5,000 strong, forming to counter anti-gay protests held by Rev. Fred Phelps at military funerals.
Mr. Phelps believes U.S. deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that he says harbours homosexuals. His protesters carry signs thanking God for so-called IEDs — improvised explosive devices — that are a major killer of soldiers in Iraq.
The bikers shield the families of dead soldiers from the protesters, and overshadow the jeers with patriotic chants and a sea of red, white and blue flags.
“The most important thing we can do is let families know that the nation cares,” said Don Woodrick, the group’s Kentucky captain. “When a total stranger gets on a motorcycle in the middle of winter and drives 300 miles to hold a flag, that makes a powerful statement.”
At least 14 states are considering laws aimed at the funeral protesters, who at a recent memorial service at Fort Campbell wrapped themselves in upside-down U.S. flags. They danced and sang impromptu songs peppered with vulgarities that condemned homosexuals and soldiers.
The Patriot Guard was also there, waving up a ruckus of support for the families across the street. Community members came in the freezing rain to chant “U-S-A, U-S-A” alongside them.
“This is just the right thing to do. This is something America didn’t do in the ’70s,” said Kurt Mayer, the group’s national spokesman. “Whether we agree with why we’re over there, these soldiers are dying to protect our freedoms.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of Fred Phelps and a lawyer for his church in Topeka, Kan., said neither state laws nor the Patriot Guard can silence their message that God killed the soldiers because they fought for a country that embraces homosexuals.
“The scriptures are crystal clear that when God sets out to punish a nation, it is with the sword. An IED is just a broken-up sword,” Ms. Phelps-Roper said. “Since that is his weapon of choice, our forum of choice has got to be a dead soldier’s funeral.”
The church, Westboro Baptist Church, is not affiliated with a larger denomination and is made up mostly of Fred Phelps’s extended family members.
During the 1990s, church members were known mostly for picketing the funerals of AIDS victims, and they have long been tracked as a hate group by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
The project’s deputy director, Heidi Beirich, said that other groups have tried to counter the Phelps message but that none has been as organized as the Patriot Guard.
“I’m not sure anybody has gone to this length to stand in solidarity,” she said. “It’s nice that these veterans and their supporters are trying to do something. I can’t imagine anything worse, your loved one is killed in Iraq and you’ve got to deal with Fred Phelps.”
Kentucky, home to sprawling Fort Campbell along the Tennessee line, was among the first states to attempt to deal with Mr. Phelps legislatively. Its House and Senate have each passed bills that would limit people from protesting within 300 feet (about 100 metre) of a funeral or memorial service. The Senate version would also keep protesters from being within earshot of grieving friends and family members.
Richard Wilbur, a retired police detective, said his Indiana Patriot Guard group comes to funerals only if invited by family. He said he has no problem with protests against the war but sees no place for objectors at a family’s final goodbye to a soldier.
“No one deserves this,” he said.