Before we left the coffee shop parking lot we had been told by our ride captain that we would not have a police escort for this funeral so we were basically on our own and would have to stop for traffic lights and that sort of thing - no one seemed to mind, because why we were there had nothing to do with whether or not we had a police escort.
As the bikes started forming staggered lines to get out into traffic, a van pulled across the oncoming traffic lanes for us and a woman got out and stood in the road to let us all go -- with the window of our truck cracked open, I could hear people cheering and honking their horns in support - they knew why we were there.
It was about 3 miles from the rendezvous point to the church, and all I could think, was man, this is it... I am going to see these "uninvited guests" as they are called by some, or the "Topeka Twinkies" by others. Either way, we were confirmed at the briefing that they would in fact be there, even though they had only been given a 30 minute permit to protest. I realized in that 3 mile ride, that I really and truly didn't want to see them. Not even for the "gawk" factor - I had neither need nor inclination to see those people. I was too focused on why we were there - the thought of seeing them physically disgusted me -- my mission was clear: to see this family into the church and help them get through this day.
The unofficial count of bikes today was 246 -- most of whom had 2 on board -- and 14 "cages" (cars/trucks), most packed to capacity -- we got out of the car, our flags in hand, and moved to the lines of other Guard Riders who were lining the sides of the street in anticipation of the family's arrival. We were also told that there would not be a casket at this funeral. The Ride Captain got in the middle of the street and called everyone to attention - out of I don't know how many people, total silence fell at the Captain's word. We stood there, listening to him speak, flags of all sizes waving in the air, representing all branches of the military -- and without warning, he introduced us to Lt Avery's father, Gary and 2 brothers, Clinton & Jonathan.
His father seemed very strong, but you could tell by looking at him that his grief was taking its toll on him. He spoke to us in a loving tone, a few times hearing his voice crack -- thanking us for standing there out in the cold, thanking us for our support, and thanking us for being part of this day.
This man has lost a son, the other 2 men lost a brother, and his wife of 8 months lost a husband, immeasurable loss... and they were thanking us. At that point, the governor of Nebraska and one of the Senators made their way to the center with the Avery family, they too thanked us for being there in support, making it easy to not pay attention to "those people". They then introduced another family who was in attendance supporting the Avery family -- a family who just 2 months before had lost their son and brother in the war -- they had not met before this, but they now shared a bond that runs far deeper than blood.
We were then told that the Avery family had invited us all to come into the church and be a part of the service after the Governor made his way into the church -- they had hot coffee brought in for us, and when we made our way into the church lobby, there were some extended family members who were there with us - they were randomly shaking hands and thanking us for being a part of this day, honoring their family in this way.
The captain came out and advised us that the family would be making their way through the lobby and to make 2 lines of people as an honor guard to stand at attention when the family comes through. I stood there, the 2nd person away from the door, my flag in hand and all at once, my mind just flowed over with thoughts. At this point, I didn't know that Lt Avery had been married -- I knew small bits and pieces about him, I couldn't imagine the feeling of loss.
This person that I didn't know at all -- I started to think about what it would be like to take someone that I cared about and make it so I could never see or hear or touch them again & my insides started to hurt.
That's when I saw his father again, but this time, he had his arm wrapped tightly around his mother, and they started to make their way across the lobby. Wow is the only word I can use to express how badly my heart weeped for them -- the Captain called the Patriot Guard to attention, people who were previous military saluted, others covered their hearts with their hands -- I think that this made it real for his mom... she wasn't crying before she started walking through us, but by the time she reached the sanctuary doors, I could see the tears streaming down her face. The next 3 people in line were Lt Avery's 2 brothers, who stood on either side of his Widow Kayla.
Some of the guard went upstairs to the balcony to watch the service, but anyone who knows my issues with heights, we stayed on the ground level and watched the service on the closed circuit TV. I watched family members talk about him, not just about him being a soldier or a hero, but him being a good kid in school and someone who knew how to get what he wanted -- They showed a montage of photos of Lt Avery from his childhood all to his graduation from West Point, to his wedding day -- I became a part of this person -- rather, this person became a piece of my heart -- his widow --
I stood there watching the service with Tony standing right next to me, and he could tell that I was thinking about something else, and asked what it was... as I tried to get the words out, I felt my voice breaking and my eyes start to sting, and even now as I sit here and write this, I have a knot in my throat and my eyes burn -- I can't imagine what his wife is going through -- hell right now must seem like a vacation compared to what she is going through inside.
Knowing that there was no goodbye - no last I love you - no last kiss... just a voice coming through a rickety line at the phone center of whatever FOB he was on... There was no casket to rest her head on as she wept -- There was no body brought back from Iraq... all she had was a confirmation of his death and a headstone in a memorial garden to visit. I can't imagine that profound level of pain... I mean, what do you say to her... all you can say is "I am so sorry" and be there. And we were.
When the service ended, we packed up the rider who came with us and gave our fellow riders a windshield just like we'd done on the way up - we had all forgotten about Fred Phelps and his "church", our reason for being there had been carried out -- our mission accomplished. One thing did strike me on the way home though - the rider who had broken down and ridden up with us said from the backseat - if there was ever a good reason to come out of what Phelps does, it brought all of us together, and I know from the bottom of my heart, that even when there is no more Fred Phelps, we will still be here, supporting our fallen heroes and their families, because that is our mission, and we will Ride on until each one comes home.
Go Rest High on that Mountain Lt Avery --- Your work on Earth is done.
GodSpeed. Take care everyone.
Grey Eagle has a tribute page for LT Avery here.
Find out more about the Patriot Guard Riders.
From JournalStar.com in Lincoln, Nebraska: Fallen soldier honored; protesters kept away
... back to Patriot Guard Ride for LT Garrison Avery, part 1..