Thursday, November 20, 2008

Patriot Guard Riders Honor SPC Wenger

When SPC Adam M. Wenger was killed in Iraq, the news made headlines in Charleston and his family's home in Jesup, Georgia and Michigan. By the time his funeral was held in Georgia last Friday, the Post and Courier had moved on to other stories.

Cedar Posts Prior Story on Adam M. Wenger

The funeral was attended by friends and family, his wife and seven children and fellow soldiers from Ft. Stewart. In addition to the traditional honor guard from Ft. Stewart, members of Jesup's Police Department and the Georgia Highway Patrol; more than 2 dozen members of the Patriot Guard Riders traveled to Jesup, Georgia to honor fallen United States Army Specialist Adam M. Wenger.

In his own words Georgia Ride Captain known as "Georgia Point Man" tells of his ride to honor Adam Wenger.

There will be an empty chair at the Thanksgiving table. Adam Wenger’s family had their fingers crossed he’d be home by Thanksgiving eve. His chair will be empty at Christmas dinner as well.

Adam Wenger was just 22 days short of the end of his tour. And he’d decided this was the end of his duty. Adam had told his family he was coming home. For good. After tours in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq twice, this was enough.

Adam came home sooner than anyone had planned. And it was a homecoming no one wanted.

So, it was not just any Friday for the Wenger family. It was their day to say goodbye.

About a year ago, I joined the Patriot Guard Riders. It’s a group of bikers who stand flag lines and provide escort columns at homecomings and funerals of service men and women. We’re always invited by the family. The group started about three ago when bikers used their motorcycles to physically shield mourners from protesters and drown out their chants with their motorcycle engines. Yes, there are actually people who protest at the funerals of fallen heroes.

For me, this was not just any Friday. I know folks up north who have already seen snow and stored their bikes. But this was a day I wanted and needed to hit the road. So, I rode to Jesup, Georgia. 225 miles. Up I-4 to I-95 in Daytona, then northwest at Brunswick, Georgia to Jesup. Along those roads I passed the home of a friend I planned to see soon. But the ride this morning was for a stranger. This ride was to say ‘thank you.’

I started out fairly early because I needed to be in Jesup just before noon. The day was sunny and a bit warm and humid for mid-November. But I noticed that the day got cloudier and cooler as I headed north. As I crossed into Georgia, I began to see the leaves changing. Autumn always comes a bit late in the Deep South. The coolness of the day and the colors of the leaves against a steel sky reminded me of why I was on the road. It reminded me of why I wanted to be there. I knew what I was going to see. I used the ride - that time on the bike - to brace myself.

When I rode into the parking lot, there were already about 2 dozen other bikers. We talked briefly and had a group prayer before we mounted up to ride to the funeral home. The 8 big bikes with the sturdy flag mounts were in front. The big 5’x7’ American flag mounted on the right rear and the Patriot Guard flag mounted on the left on those bikes waved strongly in the cool morning breeze. We rode slowly behind a sheriff’s department escort. They blocked intersections as we rode toward the funeral home.

As we rode, other drivers did not just stop at intersections. Drivers seeing this procession heading toward them slowed down and stopped right in their lanes. Many completely pulled off the small road as we moved steadily toward them. Cars stopped. So did trucks - from pickups to 18-wheelers. We rode slowly enough that I could really see some of the faces of the drivers. I believe I could almost see what they were feeling. Some had bowed their heads. But I could see on many faces the faint smile of pride and in their eyes, there was a brief glimpse of the sadness of respect.

At the funeral home, we lined the front of the building and stood silently – each one of us standing straight - holding a flag next to our left side. After a short time on the line, I could hear the unmistakable sound of children behind me. Former Georgia State PGR Captain Gene Altman walked passed and whispered to me that those were Adam Wenger’s children. I’m glad I had on those dark glasses that bikers always wear. Yes, they hide tears very well. But I really needed them. Because just as the family was getting ready to go inside the funeral home, the clouds broke. Not a lot. Just enough for shafts of sunlight to beam down. And then we felt an early afternoon breeze beginning and those two dozen flags were soon standing straight from their poles. I smiled when I heard Gene say, “I’ve seen it before and am always amazed. God must love these flags.”

We waited quietly outside until the end of the service. We then stood silently in line as Adam’s body was loaded into the white hearse. The Army honor guard was so precise in handling the flag-draped casket.

The stillness of the day was broken only by the quiet commands of the non-com in charge of the detail at the hearse… and of course the wrenching sound of the sobs from family and friends. What burns into your memory though, is the looks on the faces. It’s not anger, but that will come as part of the grieving process. It is the look of disbelief suddenly melting away at that moment.

The shock of seeing that casket going into that hearse is the point when many finally realize the finality of the entire surreal ordeal. My heart hurts for them. I don’t know if those dark biker glasses bring things more sharply into focus or if they help shield the pain showing in my eyes. I’m thinking – both.

The Patriot Guard Riders escort the hearse and the family. With our group right behind the flashing lights of the sheriff’s department car, we slowly led the procession to the cemetery. The shafts of sunlight before the service were gone. The clouds rolled back in – thicker and darker than before. There were scattered rain drops – almost like tears. It was a gloomy afternoon. It was a solemn and mournful ride. But in this hour of death, I cannot explain how or why my senses never felt more alive. I was trying to drink in every detail.

Had I been trying to read symbolism into what I saw or was I just so keenly aware of everything around me? As I watched the riders ahead of me, I could not fail to notice again what was going on outside the procession.

I saw it but couldn’t immediately put it into words. And it took a couple of hours after it was all over, before I found the best way to describe what I was seeing and feeling.

It was: America. People stopped. Not just cars, but people on the sidewalks and at intersections. Americans. Three ladies standing in front of an elementary school had their right hands over their hearts as we rode past and they looked down the procession toward the hearse. I caught a glance of a man at an auto repair shop, undoubtedly a vet, snap to attention. Traffic didn’t just stop, it pulled over. School buses. Soccer moms. Even the U.S. mail carrier pulled off the road. Americans. All of them – showing their respect -- a small token of appreciation for a sacrifice that is too great to be measured.

At the cemetery, well, you know the scene. Beneath the funeral home tent is artificial turf laid out as carpet and a dozen covered folding chairs facing the flag-draped casket. The field of 50 stars was over Adam’s left shoulder. We stood with our flags in a semi-circle about 20 feet away from the tent. After brief words from the minister, there was the 21-gun salute. You know the shots are coming. But the sound from those rifles is always jarring – ripping through the silence of the moment and the quiet of grief. The smell and the smoke of the shots drift through the small group of mourners. And as quiet slowly returns, from a far corner of the cemetery, you hear the first notes of “Taps.” God, how I hate that song.

Bracing myself on the ride up had only gotten me so far. I could not help but see Adam Wenger’s young widow and their five children. They were right in front of me. As the bugler played, I cannot begin to describe the freight train of thoughts that roared through my mind.

I know the questions those children will have. And I know the incomplete feeling they’ll have when they get the best explanation anyone can give them. I pray their mother will be the loving example that I had. They’ll need it more than they can possibly know. And I know that empty feeling. They will feel it more as they get older. And the feeling is in many ways as natural as the tide. It will ebb and flow for years to come. There will be days, even months, when they can laugh and enjoy and hopefully live the lives their parents dreamed for them. But then there will be the other days when that empty feeling will crest. It will be at a birthday or at a graduation. It will be on their wedding day. Or… at a funeral. It will be on Thanksgiving.

I always marvel and appreciate the precision of the honor guard folding the flag from the casket. Once it has been folded twice lengthwise, did you know it takes 13 folds to create the triangular shape? I counted each fold slowly. I watched as the officer knelt and handed the flag to the widow. I watched as the service ended and mourners slowly made their way to the family to encourage and console. The riders quietly turned and walked the hundred yards or so back to our bikes. We rolled up the flags and said our goodbyes. Until next time.

The ride to Jesup, Georgia was 225 miles. I’m sure the ride home was the same distance, but my mind did those miles plus a few thousand more and many years back, as well. And my thoughts all led me back to the same point and the same topic: Time. We never have enough time and we never take or make the time to make sure we’re using our most precious gift the best way we can.

You probably know about me “pressing pause” right now. I’m trying to get the handle on time. I hate the idea of simply ‘managing’ time. That’s a phrase from a guy trying to sell books. I want to make time count. That’s why I rode to Jesup. I felt a need to say thank you, but more than that, I felt like I needed to make the time to do it.

Adam Wenger was just 27 years old. He should have had a lot more time. As we approach Thanksgiving, remember to take the time to appreciate others whose time has come.

Make the most of the time you have.

Georgia Point Man

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