October 5th, 2013 holds a special place in my heart. We lost four of our own, and the ensuing months held some of the most difficult and trying days I think I will ever experience. I escorted the body of Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, my dear friend and brother-in-arms, from the battlefield, to the plane across the world, to his wife and parents, to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. At the time, I had gone from frequent missions in Afghanistan to the most intense mission of my career, to back in the U.S. days later, planning a funeral, coordinating with Regiment and the family, and trying to keep my own head above water.
That is to say, I was a little preoccupied. There were many things that I simply did not care to deal with, even if I felt strongly about them. The government shutdown and how it affected the families of the loved ones who had been killed in action, for example. It was something that would have irked me to my core, had I the faculties to pile that on top of everything else at the time. Fortunately it was dealt with, as I am simply one of many Americans who care deeply for our nation’s fallen.
Another example was of the very credible fear that the Westboro Baptist Church would picket Patrick’s funeral. There was an even higher risk that they would picket the funeral of another Ranger who was killed alongside Patrick, Cody Patterson — we had heard rumors they would show up to both. And like the government shutdown, I was already neck-deep in a million other things, least of all what was going on in my head at the time.
But again, the people of this country that I love so dearly stepped up. I remember walking outside of the funeral home where we held the ceremony for Patrick. We would soon then take his coffin from there to Arlington. As I stepped out the front door for some air, several men in leather jackets toting American and POW/MIA flags stood still near the front door. I almost didn’t notice them at first, or may have thought that they were always there during a military funeral.
“What are you guys?” I asked, perhaps a little bluntly.
“We’re just here to make sure everything goes smoothly, sir,” said an older man, maybe in his 50s. Calling ME, a 23-year-old kid, sir. He stood quietly, guarding the front door with dignity and respect. He did not say what organization that he was with, he did not tell me his background and he did not tell me his name. He and his friends simply stood guard, out of the way and inconspicuous, but there.
I thanked him, and he said it was an honor.
Elements from the Patriot Guard Riders went to Cody Patterson’s funeral, and like at Arlington, the Westboro protesters decided it would be in their best interest to stay away. I don’t know if they were the same group at Arlington that day.
There were so many people working from so many angles to make our lives easier during those darker days, and for that I will be eternally grateful. I could probably spend a good chunk of my life tracking everyone down, shaking their hands and thanking them — and it would be a life well spent.
Cody Patterson funeral procession:
Featured image: A member of the Patriot Guard Riders bikers at a funeral in 2016. They’re there because they honestly care. | AP Photo/Mary Altaffer