Patriot Guard welcomes a soldier home

Published 10:03 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On a slow Sunday afternoon last weekend at Norfolk International Airport, the few arrivals were witness to one of the happiest events in a patriot’s heart — a soldier’s homecoming.

Dozens of motorcycles lined an access road at the arrivals terminal. Their riders, most dressed in jeans and leather accessories, had temporarily abandoned their bikes to take part in the welcoming home of Pfc. Justin Chavis, 23, after more than a year in Iraq.

The bikers, members of the Patriot Guard Riders, lined both sides of a crosswalk at the terminal. Most held American flags, and the ones in the middle had to part several times to allow cars to pass.

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With the growing heat, some became antsy. They talked to their neighbors, shifted from one foot to the other and looked over their shoulders to ensure their motorcycles were OK. Every few minutes, one man near the terminal — holding a giant American flag on a wooden pole — crept to the window, trying unsuccessfully to become inconspicuous as he searched for the man they were to welcome home. Other arrivals stopped and set down their bulging luggage to take pictures of the flag line.

Finally, Chavis and his girlfriend, Megan Lewis, emerged from the terminal, holding hands and smiling as the Patriot Guard Riders erupted into cheers and applause.

“Private First Class Justin Chavis, arriving home after 12 months in Iraq!” yelled one man.

After the ceremony at the airport, the Patriot Guard Riders mounted the flags to their bikes and accompanied Chavis on the 45-mile journey to his parents’ home in the Holland area.

“It was pretty amazing,” Chavis said. “It was way more than I expected. It feels like I was well-appreciated.”

That is exactly the effect that the group was going for.

The Patriot Guard Riders initially organized in Kansas to help counteract funeral protestors who claimed that the death of American soldiers was God’s judgment on the nation.

The original members showed up at the funerals and blocked the mourners’ view of the protestors with their line of motorcycles and flags, sometimes revving their engines to drown out the chants of the protestors. It’s a mission that hearkens back to the vitriolic welcome that Vietnam veterans received upon returning from war, said Mike Renwick, a local member of PGR.

“All the things that happened with Vietnam vets, they can never be allowed to happen again,” Renwick said.

Since then, the group’s mission has expanded to include attending any military veterans’ or active duty personnel’s funeral, welcoming home those returning from duty and sending off those deploying. Some branches of the organization also serve at funerals of law enforcement officers, firefighters and rescue workers.

“It’s really been a great organization,” Renwick, who joined in 2006, said. “A lot of these guys, their units can’t get here — they’re still in active theater.”

Some of the group’s work is harder than the rest, Renwick said. Send-offs are tough, and funerals are even worse.

“The funerals definitely tug at your heartstrings,” said Renwick, who estimates he uses 75 percent of his vacation time from work doing PGR missions. He added, though, that it makes funerals easier for families when they know that someone is there supporting them.

“There’s a cathartic value to that,” Renwick said. “They can think, ‘Maybe it wasn’t in vain, maybe it wasn’t all for naught.’”

Sunday’s mission was a happy one for the local riders, though, as they were able to welcome a local man coming home healthy.

“Just so these guys know that it is appreciated,” Renwick said, giving reasons why the PGR does welcome-home missions. “It’s real easy for these guys to get the idea … that we’re over here and nobody pays any attention.”

“We hope that these guys realize what they’re doing is greatly appreciated.”

As for Chavis, he said he’ll never forget the welcome that he received at the airport on Sunday. After getting over the initial surprise (his family and girlfriend kept it a secret), he said that the welcome meant a lot.

“I didn’t even know if it was for me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Did I do something wrong? Did I walk through somebody’s parade?’ I was kind of amazed, was kind of at a loss for words.”

“It means a lot, coming home to freedom.”