When a funeral service was held Monday afternoon at Chattanooga National Cemetery for U.S. Marine Sgt. Tyler Skelly, a uniformed Marine knelt before the veteran's mother, Stacy Skelly, and presented her with the folded U.S. flag from her son's casket.
The next two men who knelt to comfort the grieving mother wore a different kind of uniform: jeans, T-shirts and denim vests bearing the patches of their motorcycle club, the Patriot Guard Riders.
"He was a true American hero," said Robert McMullen, a lean, white-bearded Vietnam vet as he pressed a motorcycle club coin into her hand.
With U.S. flags flying, close to 30 members of the biker's club accompanied the funeral procession for Skelly, 26, from a chapel in his hometown of Dalton, Ga., to the historic cemetery in Chattanooga.
The family asked the bikers to be there.
"The family contacts us," said Harve "Big Harve" Roach, a biker who served in the Army, including 18 months in Vietnam. Roach figures he's ridden his motorcycle with the Patriot Guard Riders in close to 200 veterans' funeral processions.
Founded in 2005, the nationwide, all-volunteer nonprofit organizations's mission, its website says, is to appear at funerals of military personnel and emergency responders and "shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protester or group of protesters."
Though the group's website doesn't mention it, the Patriot Guard Riders have rallied to intervene against protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, which is notorious for its protests at military funerals because the church blames U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq on the U.S.'s tolerance of homosexuality.
Sgt. Skelly died on April 29 at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. He had been ill since 2011 when he had a seizure during his second tour of duty in the Middle East and fell and hit his head on concrete, suffering a brain injury.
Among the mourners Monday was Jake Strong, of Rome, Ga., who served with Skelly in Iraq.
"He was a really good friend, a good Marine," Strong said. "Sarcastic, goofy, willing to help you out all the time."
Strong, who rides a motorcycle, thinks he will join the Patriot Guard Riders someday.
"I think it's amazing what they do," Strong said. "They served before, and they're still serving today."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...