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Patriot Guard Riders welcome home Airmen; integrate with Ellsworth's honor guard

ELLSWORTH AFB, S.D. -- The old vet walks gingerly with the aid of a well-worn cane, rested on the picnic table beneath the shade of an oak tree beside the deployment processing center here.

The tattooed arms detailing his life's journey once cradled a rifle in a hellish jungle far away. Now they embrace an American flag.

The leather riding vest tells his story while his grey eyes reflect memories of battles from long ago and places he'd rather forget.

Vietnam veteran. Army ranger. Purple heart.

"Bear" from the local chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders was part of a 25-person contingent of veterans and bikers on hand to welcome home Ellsworth's deployed Airmen July 27.

"My wife was supposed to work tonight," he said softly, both hands resting on top of his cane as he watched his fellow guard riders unfold their flags in preparation for the Airmen's arrival. "But, I asked her to take the night off. This is more important."

According to the PGR's official Web site, the organization's main task is to "show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities."

The group initially started as a kind of patriotic response force to shield mourning families from war protestors at funerals of fallen servicemembers.

The Web site specified the PGR shields grieving families from discourteous and jeering protestors only through "strictly legal and non-violent means" and the PGR will only ride to a funeral at the request of the servicemember's family.

Bear said he participates in patriot guard functions to ensure things that happened to him and his fellow veterans in the past never happen to America's warrior fighting the Global War on Terror. "When we came home, there were no receptions for us," he said.
"We were spit on, called baby killers and people threw things at us. That's why I became a part of the guard."

People serving their country now should not go through the humiliation we did, Bear said. "They're appreciated for outing their lives on the line so this country can remain free."

The riders integrated with Ellsworth's honor guard to welcome home the Airmen and were given an impromptu lesson in military formations and drill. For the ones who served in uniform, the old habits of responding to commands at the voice of a seasoned NCO came back to life as Staff Sgt. Reuben TrejoSanchez, NCOIC of Ellsworth's honor guard, worked the flag bearing riders into the formation of rifles.

"They were polite and professional; it was an honor to stand in formation with them and I would do it again," said Sergeant TrejoSanchez. "The honor guard was proud to be at their side as we welcomed back our deployers."

The PGR is dedicated to do what they do because it's simply "right," said Master Sgt., retired, Lance Bultena.

"We have an unwavering respect for those who risk their very lives for America's freedom and security," he said. "As long as we keep growing generations like those who are now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we'll keep being a free nation. "That deserves respect and we have an opportunity to express how much that means to us."

Mr. Bultena said he was ridiculed as a young Airman while the Vietnam War was in its final years.

"I got called names and spit at 'just in case' I had been in the (Vietnam) war," he said.
Now, Mr. Bultena welcomes home every veteran he can ... even those whose 'Welcome Home' may be a few years late.

"During a welcome home mission we did in Sioux Falls, a Vietnam veteran came up to us and said, 'You wouldn't believe how different my life would have been if I'd had a welcome home like this.'

"He should have had a welcome home like that," Mr. Bultena continued. "He deserved it."
As Ellsworth's Airmen were reunited with their families, the riders folded their flags, mounted their machines and prepared to depart. Several Airmen, still in DCUs and with loved ones on their arm, stopped to thank the riders for welcoming them home.

"It's unbelievable and unexpected they're here," said Staff Sgt. Shane Sailer, 28th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "It's a good feeling."

Even if no one bothered to thank him and his fellow riders and PGR members to welcome the forces home he finds it a worthwhile cause, Mr. Bultena said.

"(This) is not about us. It's about these people we call American heroes."

As the sun set on Ellsworth, the local chapter of the PGR departed toward their next mission, whether it's to welcome a servicemember home or to stand a silent and respectful vigil over a fallen member as his remains arrive at a local airport.

The sound of rumbling engines leaving Ellsworth's gate were truly fueled by patriotism and respect for America's fighting forces.