WEST PALM BEACH — Jeff “Cowboy” Garten had read news articles and seen TV reports about protestors attending the funerals of veterans of military service and causing disruptions, and it didn’t sit well with the Palm Beach resident and former officer in the Florida Army National Guard. “I saw that the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR) were protecting the grieving families from the protestors, and as a patriotic American, I wanted to help.” That was back in 2009, and since then, Garten, who serves as the President of the Defenders LEMC Palm Beach Chapter of the Patriot Guard and the Assistant State Captain for the sixth district, which encompasses ten Florida Counties, has been working with over 300 registered riders.
Patriot Guard members are often on hand at funerals of veterans to provide support and solace to grieving families, but though they are known for that kindness, you might be surprised to learn of some of their other volunteer duties. They have also executed special birthday parades to honor World War II veterans, many of whom do not have many relatives or friends still alive, and they attend military home dedications and other veteran-related events and activities. But Garten says some of the group’s favorite assignments include assisting with Southeast Florida Honor Flight’s missions to accompany veterans on a daylong trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials erected in their honor.
Members of the Patriot Guard arrive at Palm Beach International Airport long before dawn on the days when there is an Honor Flight mission scheduled and stand a flag-line at the airport prior to the day’s flight. “The veterans come up to us before they board the flight and have their photos taken with us. We interact with them, and it’s awesome,” says Garten. “To see the smiles on their faces and talk to them is a memorable experience for all of us.” Seeing the Patriot Guard standing and waiting to honor the veterans is such an emotional surprise for the veterans who are about to embark on the Honor Flight that it often helps set the tone for what most veterans say is second only to their weddings and births of their children as their best day ever!
Jim “No Pockets” Kamen says he became involved in the Patriot Guard Riders so many years ago that he can’t even recall the date. The Honor Flight duties are among his favorites, too. “PGR has been providing motorcycle escorts for Southeast Florida Honor Flight from day one, along with standing a flag line at the airport for homecoming! As Honor Flight has grown, we upped our game,” he says. “We are there for every flight, escorting the busses and giving the vets a great sendoff in the morning.” And while it’s true that being a member of the Patriot Guard means attending sad occasions like funerals, Kamen says it’s always an honor. “Being a PGR member means being willing to donate your time to honor those who have served our nation, some of whom have given the ultimate sacrifice! But it also means attending events, having a birthday parade, teaching children what it means.” Kamen, a Vietnam veteran says, “I have attended elementary school events where the questions can be just plain funny sometimes.”
Garten says the Patriot Guard is often looking for new volunteers to join its ranks, and what surprises many people is that you don’t have to own a motorcycle to join. There is also no cost to become a member. “Members of the Patriot Guard must respect our nation, our flag, and our veterans, both active-duty and retired,” he says. “We are all volunteers, and everything we use, including our time, motorcycles, and even the flags we fly are paid for out of our own pockets.”
If you live in St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, Monro, Highlands, Hendry, Okeechobee, or Glades Counties, you can send an email to Garten at email@example.com to get on his distribution list. If you’d like to learn more about Southeast Florida Honor Flight or how to become a guardian or supporter, feel free to visit www.honorflightsefl.org.