At some point in all of our lives we experience “something” that is so emotional and moving that it becomes difficult to put our feelings to words. On Thursday April 24, 2013 I attended the West, TX memorial services for the first responders of the fertilizer plant explosion with The Patriot Guard Riders. Its difficult to even know where to start this post because of my emotions.
The Fort Worth meeting spot for the mission was at the QT off 35W South. Arrival time was 6am. I topped off the tank and parked in line for the parade style ride to Waco. The region captain who is also the state captain introduced himself and some others in the Patriot Guard. I told him this was my first mission and his reply was, “Prepare yourself, the first one is always the most difficult. None of the missions get easier but your first one will never be forgotten”. Upon hearing that I honestly did not understand the impact the mission was going to have on me.
We had a mission briefing and lined up for our 0655 departure time. Our group was right at 70 bikes. The trip to Waco went well and we arrived at the meeting area right on time. Other Patriot Guard riders were already there and more continued to arrive for another hour from different state regions. At this time everyone was allowed to unfurl their big flags if they had them on their bikes. There were riders from different MC’s, RC’s, and Independents that came to show their respects and support The Patriot Guard mission. We had another mission meeting that provided details of our role for the memorial service now that all the regions were together. We left the meeting spot with secret service and Waco police escort to a staging spot that was about a mile from Baylor University auditorium where the services were to be held. President Obama was attending the service so the secret service was everywhere. At this point we were about 300 bikes strong.
After another hour we departed again but this time it was for the parade ceremony. We rode to the campus, past the auditorium, then on to a blocked of street where we parked 4 bikes wide from which the line extended almost half a mile long. We were followed by emergency response vehicles who were also part of the parade. Once we parked our orders were to hurry and get flags from the flag trucks, unfurl them, and head for the flag line area. We set up our flag line directly across from the auditorium where the services were being held.
The flag line extended about half a mile along the road. Emergency vehicles continued to roll past in parade formation for over an hour. I heard there were over 400 emergency vehicles at the ceremony. After the last truck went by the area became completely silent. Thousands of people and no voices, music, cell phones, birds, cars, nothing made a single noise. It was beautifully respectful. Then far off in the distance from where our bikes were parked, we heard the bagpipes. Slowly they approached from afar with the music getting louder as they moved closer to the flag line. When they arrived at the auditorium they stopped momentarily, the base drums did a short deep drum closure which you could feel in your chest, and they moved off in complete silence. I was having some difficulties during all of this controlling my feelings. When you understand the magnitude of what is taking place it can become difficult to hold back the tears. I would often become overwhelmed and feel that lump rise in my throat to be followed by uncontrollable tears.
Next came the most difficult part for me, I have never experienced something like this in my life. Fellow firefighters slowly walked past holding the helmets of their fallen. Some of the helmets had the officers name on it, some had burn marks, large scrapes, and other visible damage. This is where the cold hard reality really took hold. There was once a person wearing that helmet that gave their life to save others. The helmets of first responders were carried followed by a fire truck representing the department they had worked for. Following that were other representatives of the department marching in sync. All you heard was the low rumbling of the trucks idling by and the stomp of boots marching together under the occasional instruction of military personnel saying ” Left, Left, Left Right Left. I stood there holding my flag with tears flowing out from under my sunglasses. Though I didn’t know these people, the gravity of their sacrifice took hold of me.
After this came the families. You could see the hurt and the loss in their faces. You could only hope that the minute contribution of holding that flag out of respect might give even the slightest comfort for even a fleeting moment.
This marked the finalization of our role in the ceremonies. We marched back to the flag trucks in single file and furled the flags upon arrival. Here we were dismissed. I was invited to lunch with a group of Vets from Haltom City which is very close to where I live. They were wonderful and I am honored to have spent time with them. They were stopping off at West, TX on the way back so I rode home alone. I couldn’t seem to shake the feelings the day had brought upon me and often teared up again while riding home. Even when I pulled into the garage at home an hour and half later I couldn’t keep my composure. My wife greeted me as I got off my bike, asked how it went, and I looked at her and cried. I talked just enough to say “I’m not able to talk about it right now”. She just held me while I sobbed uncontrollably.
It took a full day for me to be able to talk about the experience completely. This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life and I will never forget it.
I want to thank The Patriot Guard for their support of our veterans and emergency responders. I also want to thank them for allowing me to take part in their missions.
As you know I usually have a bunch of pictures or a video. I did not take my camera or GoPro this time. I went to support The Patriot Guards mission and out of respect I did not take any media of the ceremony. I did however take a few pictures with my cellphone of the gathering of the Guard and flag trucks. If you want more than that I am sure the Internet is full of pictures and media from the news stations that were on site.