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Local motorcyclist rides to honor veterans

MIDDLEBURY — George Brewer puts a lot of miles on his trusty 2004 Harley Davidson motorcycle. There’s nothing quite like the freedom one feels cruising in the open air, drinking in the countryside amid the controlled growl of a well-tuned engine, he believes.
But six years ago, motorcycling took on a new, deeper meaning for Brewer.
When he straps on his helmet and dons his vest these days, it’s more often than not to pay tribute to veterans of the armed forces and their families. He’s in his second year as Vermont State Captain of the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR), a group of around 115 people — most of them motorcycle enthusiasts — whose mission includes displaying the nation’s colors at funerals of servicemen and women, escorting veterans to events in their honor, and shielding mourning families and friends from occasional protests. 
The PGR count roughly 300,000 members nationwide. Some are veterans, some aren’t. Some are women, and some aren’t even bikers, preferring instead to get themselves to PGR appearances by car, bus, or other forms of transportation.
GEORGE BREWER Of Middlebury (third from left) poses with a group of fellow Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who travel to veterans’ funerals to display the flag and support mourning families.
Photo courtesy of George Brewer
It’s about showing respect to veterans who’ve put their lives on the line.
Brewer, himself a former U.S. Navy reservist, joined the PGR in 2013 after admiring a stream of the organization’s riders heading to a funeral in northern New England.
“Most of them were flying flags off their bikes, and I knew it wasn’t a regular (motorcycle) group,” Brewer said. “They had vests on. I did a little inquiry online and found out who they were.”
He immediately joined the Vermont PGR, and found himself going on his first assignment, to Rutland, just two weeks later.
“They handed me a flag and said, ‘Just do what everyone else does,’” Brewer recalled.
It was a rewarding experience. Brewer got emotional when the deceased veteran’s grateful family members shook his hand after the ceremony.
“I’m kind of wimpy with that,” Brewer said. “I was leaking.”
The PGR shouldn’t be confused with the U.S. military’s Honor Guard, Brewer stressed.
An Honor Guard’s main functions at a military funeral may include firing a volley shots as a salute, drumming and other formal elements, such as draping (and removing) a flag over the coffin. As mandated by federal law, an honor guard detail must include at least two members of the armed forces.
If a family wants an honor guard for their veteran’s funeral, the PGR will make a referral to the closest American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars post, Brewer said.
The PGR specializes in “flag line” formations. As its name implies, members stand in a row, each holding a U.S. flag in a pattern OK’d by the deceased veteran’s family.
“It’s quite impressive to see six to 60 flags out there flying in the breeze,” Brewer said.
The Vermont PGR receives an average of 30 to 40 requests for services each year, according to Brewer. A lot of those end up being in the Northeast Kingdom — home to a few funeral homes that are proactive about using the free service — and Randolph, home to the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
“We’ve done a (PGR detail) with as few as six members and as many as 100,” Brewer said.
That 100-person PGR detail, during the summer of 2016, was something to behold. It stretched from Oregon to Maine, culminating in the interment of the cremains of Army Private Jewett Williams, who had fought for the Union Army with the 20th Maine.
Williams’ urn, wrapped in a U.S. flag, made the 3,000-mile cross-country trek on the motorcycles of participating Patriot Guard Riders.
PATRIOT GUARD RIDERS form a flag line at a recent memorial service for a veteran. There are more than 100 Patriot Guard Riders in Vermont who volunteer at dozens of veteran-related events each year.
Photo courtesy of George Brewer
Brewer was among the scores of PGR members who escorted Williams to his final resting place. He joined the high-octane cortege at the New York-Vermont border, and stuck with the detail to Williams’ hometown, near Belfast, Maine.
It was an all-time PGR highlight, for sure, Brewer acknowledged.
Brewer and his crew are preparing for their next assignment, on Saturday, April 27, at the Riverside Cemetery in Ira. The Daughters of the American Revolution will officially mark the gravesites of two soldiers in the war for independence: Captain Thomas Collins and his son, Benoni Collins, who rose to the rank of sergeant.
It will be a solemn occasion. But when the ceremony ends, PGR members will catch up on news and talk about their next trip.
PGR members believe they’re only scratching the surface in terms of the number of veterans’ families they could be serving. They’d like more funeral homes to be aware of PGR activities.
“People don’t know we’re there for them,” Brewer lamented.
He recently wrote letters to many in-state funeral parlors, explaining the PGR’s free services. He hopes this will result in more demand.
“It’s an honor to do it,” he said.
Those interested in learning more about the Vermont PGR may log on to tinyurl.com/y53gh5u5.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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