At some point in our lives, we experience "something" that is so emotional and moving that it's difficult to put our feelings into words. On Thursday, April 24, 2013, I attended the West, TX memorial services for the first responders of the fertilizer plant explosion. It's difficult to even know where to start this post because of my emotions.
Meeting Up For My First Patriot Guard Riders Mission
The Fort Worth meeting spot for the mission was at the QT off 35W South. The arrival time was 6 am. 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. 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.
The Ride To Waco
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 regions. At this time everyone was allowed to unfurl their big flags if they had them.
There were riders from different MCs, RCs, and Independents that came to show their respect and support the mission. We had another meeting that provided details for our role in the mission. When we left, the secret service and Waco police escorted us to a staging spot. This was about a mile from the 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.
Setting Up The Flag Line
After another hour we departed again but this time it was for the parade ceremony. We rode to the campus, past the auditorium, then onto a blocked-off street. At this point, we parked 4 bikes wide from which the line extended almost half a mile long. We were followed by emergency response vehicles that were also part of the parade. Once we parked our orders were to 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
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 passed, 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 sound of bagpipes.
Slowly the bagpipes approached from afar with the music getting louder as they moved closer to the flag line. Upon arrival at the auditorium, they stopped momentarily. The bass drums did a short deep drum closure which you could feel in your chest. Next, 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.
Helmets Of The Fallen First Responders
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 officer's name on them, 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 lives to save others. They were 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. There was 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.
The Families Of The Fallen
After this came the families. You could see the hurt and the loss in their faces. You could only hope the small contribution of holding that flag out of respect might give some slight comfort for even a fleeting moment.
The Mission Was Complete
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 feeling the day had brought upon me and often teared up again while riding home. Even when I pulled into the garage I couldn't keep my composure. My wife greeted me as I got off my bike, and asked how it went, 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.
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.