FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Wearing leather chaps and vests covered in military patches, a band of motorcyclists rolls from one soldier’s funeral to another in hopes their respectful cheers and revving engines will drown out the insults of protesters.
The motorcycle club members calling themselves Patriot Guard Riders are trying to shield mourners from cruel jeers by adherents of a tiny fundamentalist church who picket military funerals to reflect their belief that U.S. combat deaths are a sign God is punishing the United States for harboring homosexuals. Some protesters’ signs said, “Thank God for IEDs,” the improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs, that kill many U.S. soldiers.
“The most important thing we can do is let families know that the nation cares,” said Don Woodrick, the biker 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.”
Across the nation, Patriot Guard Riders number more than 5,000. They show up at soldiers’ funerals to chant patriotic slogans and wave red, white and blue flags in hopes of overshadowing backers of a Kansas clergyman named the Rev. Fred Phelps.
Phelps and members of his Westboro Baptist Church have caused such a fuss that at least 14 states are considering laws aimed at the funeral protests. During the 1990s, church members were known mostly for picketing funerals of AIDS victims, and they have long been tracked as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project in Montgomery, Alabama.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a daughter of Fred Phelps and an attorney for the Topeka, Kansas-based church, 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,” 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, which is not affiliated with a larger denomination, is made up mostly of Phelps’ extended family. A small group of them appeared last month in West Virginia outside a memorial for the 12 men killed in the Sago Mine disaster. They held signs reading “Thank God for Dead Miners” and “Miners in Hell.