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Snowball Express IX: Guarding the innocents

By Raine Devries

Fort Worth, Texas, Dec. 11–15—On the second Friday in December there was an unusual calm and desertion of select major highways in the Dallas/ Ft. Worth area. And bringing a metropolitan area that is home to more than 6.5 million people to a standstill is no small feat. Thousands of people lined overpasses or stood by their cars that they had pulled over to the shoulder as they scanned the desolate highway coming from the west. In the blink of an eye dozens of motorcycles came into view and went thundering by with the large American flags and distinctive yellow flags, all snapping in the wind, identifying the Patriot Guard Riders who were leading the way for countless members of local area law enforcement departments and more than 45 buses. Each one of those buses was filled to capacity with wide-eyed children displaying beaming smiles as they waved to all the people standing by the roadside to cheer them on. These are the children of Snowball Express and every one of them had lost a mom or dad that paid the ultimate price for our freedom while serving in our Armed Forces.

Snowball Express

The management team from Studio Movie Grill stand in the flag line welcoming the Snowball Express kids to an exclusive film screening

Each December the all-volunteer bikers of the North Texas Patriot Guard Riders rally together to welcome more than 1,700 family members of America’s fallen military heroes to the Dallas and Fort Worth area for the five-day annual gathering of the national nonprofit Snowball Express. The PGR is a critical component to ensuring Snowball Express is a success by providing motorcycle escorts for all the buses carrying the family members and enhancing security at the hotels and event venues.

On a national level, the PGR will show up at more than 50 airports around the country to cheer on the kids as they make their way to the highly-decorated departure gates where their chartered flights await. For the 2014 gathering, American Airlines donated 10 chartered flights that were identified by the FAA as “Snowball” flights and the AA flight crews were all volunteers who had been up for hours decorating the interiors of the planes and the gates.

Snowball Express

Walking through the PGR Flag Line is an exciting experience for all ages

The Patriot Guard Riders organization was initially formed in 2005 in Kansas by Chuck “Pappy” Barshney as a direct result of the actions conducted by the Westboro Baptist Church. This church congregation initiated protests at military funerals by claiming that the deaths of American troops were “divine retribution” for this America’s tolerance of homosexuality. Currently, the PGR is a registered nonprofit and has more than 325,000 members nationwide. There are no membership dues to be a member of PGR.

In fact, Patriot Guard Riders come from all walks of life including bikers, cagers, veterans, civilians, men and women. “One of the biggest challenges the PGR has is getting the word out to the public that we are not a gang, a motorcycle club, nor a riding group,” said Texas State Captain Mike Lambert. “We have 1%ers, we have H.O.G. members, and we have independents. We welcome anyone that wishes to show respect to our troops.”

Snowball Express

Patriot Guard Rider secures his flags after escorting the Snowball Express

The ninth annual gathering for Snowball Express took place on December 11–15, 2014 and for the first time was based in Ft. Worth. The previous five years it was centered in Dallas; the first three years, in Southern California.

When the nonprofit decided to move operations to the D/FW area, the PGR was actively involved from the beginning even though that year was a bit chaotic with the families being lodged in 10 hotels in the downtown Dallas area. Many of the children were delighted to see the PGR because they represented something safe at a time when very bad things were occurring in their lives.

Snowball Express

First time attendees wear gold lanyards signifying that the child has aged into the program
or has lost a parent within the last 12 months

Some of the children had been exposed to the yelling protesters from Westboro during the funerals of their parent. And to a little kid, hearing people “cheer” that your mom or dad has died is terribly confusing. The child often felt that their parent must have been a bad person to warrant such a response. For those kids that were fortunate enough to have PGR in attendance, the bikers stood silently in the flag line to visually block the family from seeing any signage if protesters had shown up. And if the church group began chanting or yelling, the PGR riders simply fired up their motorcycles and started revving the motors to drown out the protesters—a somewhat simple solution to a complicated situation.

Thankfully, most states responded to the protestors and started enacting legislation regarding protest demonstrations at funerals. Currently, most PGR missions are the result of military families asking for their presence at their loved one’s funeral. PGR never charges to attend these missions nor are there any paid staff members. It is literally a 100-percent volunteer organization.

Snowball Express

“We pay for our gas, our time, modifications to our bikes or cars, hotel stays when necessary, and food,” said PGR volunteer Jon Meleshenko. “It is never about us. The PGR family is some of the best people I’ve met and I would trust them with my life. I can’t see ever not being a proud PGR member. I give thanks to those I call my brothers and sisters who brave the freezing cold, rain, sleet and the 110-plus heat to just stand tall and silent for a stranger that we call “brother” as most of us are veterans… the core phrase of “never leave a man behind” carries on today way after we have hung up our uniforms. We are never ex-military; we are former military, and we love our country and our veterans.”

The North Texas chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders is one of the busiest in the nation. In addition to providing hundreds of volunteer man-hours to Snowball Express, they serve a large geographic region situated between Fort Hood and Fort Sill that is heavily populated with veterans.

Current enlisted military have the utmost respect for the PGR riders and are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mission for the Snowball Express families these bikers serve. “Dude, if you’ve never seen this before, it is a sight you will never forget,” said a young soldier in fatigues to others at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base as their group awaited the arrival of the PGR and Snowball Express kids for the Gary Sinise and Lt. Dan Band concert being held there in December. “First you see the PGR, then the police, and then when you see the families come through it will f••k you up… there’s just so many.”

Moments later, the PGR bikes thundered onto the tarmac and soon the hundreds of children gleefully descended from the buses that had been following behind and made their way to the hangar for dinner and the concert. There is frequently “dust in the air” that makes eyes watery when the kids approach in a large gathering. Often the kids are wearing apparel that has the photo of their mom or dad along with their name, rank, and sometimes details concerning which operation they were serving in.

“I once thought I had traveled every memorable mile across the United States, and then I rode seven miles behind the coach of a fallen military hero bringing him home,” said Brandon Beard whose day job is in Aircraft Maintenance at Southwest Airlines and who has taken time off to ride in more than 100 PGR missions and volunteer for Snowball Express multiple years. “I could never explain why I ride with the PGR to someone that hasn’t made one of those journeys. Riding for the children of our fallen military heroes at Snowball Express is a continuation of the journey and an honor I could never quantify. These are our children, and they will know that I will not forget their family’s sacrifice.”

A poignant memory for PGR Deputy State Captain Ken DuBois was from the seventh annual gathering when Snowball Express visited the legendary honky tonk Billy Bob’s for a private outing. A 9-year-old girl came up to him and asked him to dance to the great tunes Gary Sinise was performing with his band and DuBois obliged. “We danced a few songs together and as I was leaving the dance floor to return her to her guardian, it really hit me that this was the type of daddy/daughter experience she should be experiencing with her own father… but she never will,” said DuBois. “That little girl makes it a point of looking for me each year now and we both look forward to renewing our friendship.”

During the closing ceremony for the annual Snowball Express gathering in December, Mike Lambert and Ken DuBois from the Patriot Guard Riders presented a $10,000 check to the nonprofit’s executive director, Francis “Buck” Kern. The funds had been collected from PGR members around the country.

“The Patriot Guard Riders are such a strong presence during Snowball Express and the children look forward to seeing them every year,” shared Buck Kern. “In 2012 they launched a campaign where they began giving out leather motorcycle vests to the kids and each one was personalized with that child’s name and assorted other military and motorcycle-related patches and pins. It began because the kids have had an opportunity to pose on motorcycles the past few years, thanks to Rick Fairless whose Stroker’s Dallas team trailers them in each year, and the kids often asked to pose by wearing a one of the PGR rider’s vests. The absolute biggest hit of the gathering in 2012 were those PGR vests and some kids even insisted upon sleeping in them!”

Ken DuBois shared that the leather motorcycle vests will be given out to all children attending Snowball Express for their first time and that returning kids will receive the rocker patches which will be sewn on for them at no charge during returning years.

By the numbers, 175 Patriot Guard Riders volunteered to work at Snowball Express IX with more than 1,000 man hours being provided by PGR volunteers. During the last two years, 1,400 leather motorcycle vests were gifted to the Snowball children with more than 14,000 patches sewn on along with more than 5,000 pins.

For more information on getting involved with the North Texas Patriot Guard Riders, visit their website at www.NTXPGR.org. And for volunteering or becoming a sponsor of the Snowball Express, go to their website at www.SnowballExpress.org.

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