Saturday, March 18, 2006

Protecting Honor

After almost 34 years, Tom Angell still chokes on his words recalling the moment he returned to the U.S. after fighting in Vietnam. "They threw eggs at us," Angell said of the anti-war protesters who met his return flight after serving as a combat military policeman. Since January, Angell has been part of the Patriot Guard Riders, who were first organized in August 2005. On Wednesday afternoon, the Reno County resident kept rubbing a shine on his sparkling royal blue Honda motorcycle with a silver flagpole attached. He was preparing to ride to a funeral in Temple, Texas, on Friday to support another soldier killed in Iraq. The bitter memory at the San Francisco Airport was buried deep for years. But it has surfaced in recent months because of another war, and more protesters.
Tom Angell talks about being a member of the Patriot Guard which started in Kansas this past August, has grown to nearly 18,000
"It won't happen again," he said firmly, sweeping his long, gray bangs out of his eyes. According to Terry "Darkhorse" Houck, the Patriot Guard Riders formed in Kansas when a few friends in Mulvane heard members of Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka, were planning to protest the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. Church members oppose an army that represents a country that accepts homosexuality. "This isn't a motorcycle gang," he said. "You don't even need to have a motorcycle or know what one is to belong. It's the patriotic thing to do. A lot of the people come in cars with flags." Chapters have been formed across the country and in the United Kingdom; as of March 16, there were 17,983 members. Angell got involved when he learned of the death of Reno County soldier Cpl. Peter Wagler and that Westboro Baptist Church was coming to protest. "I don't do this to protest Phelps," Angell said. "I'm there to honor the soldier." At Wagler's funeral he was so impressed with the show of flags - and compassion - he knew he needed to show his support for other fallen soldiers. Now, two months later, he's planning to attend his sixth military funeral.
How could he not, he asks? His son, Brian Angell, currently is serving in the military. A War Mother's flag can be seen hanging in the window of his home. For him, it's important that the families who have lost a loved one know people are behind them. "Whatever Phelps' thought process is, it's not fair to the families," he said. "That had to have been the most fantastic thing I had seen in a long time," said Linda Klaus, the mother of Sgt. Jessie Davila, speaking of the Patriot Guard's presence at her son's Dodge City funeral March 4. With more than 400 members holding flags and standing at attention, Klaus described the scene as a sea of flags, which helped her feel safe in her grief. "My son would have been so proud to have seen that," Klaus said. A Davila family friend, Dr. Alan Snodgrass, Jetmore, agreed the Patriot Guard eased the ordeal. "It helped with the pain," Snodgrass said. "We realized how important Jessie was to his country." Snodgrass said a guard member from Mulvane, also a Vietnam veteran, told him the protestors wouldn't do to Jessie what protestors had done to the veterans returning from Southeast Asia. For Angell, this is the first bit of unity the 55-year-old has felt since he returned from Vietnam in July 1972. "I realized I can do something to make the families feel better at the worst time of their life," he said softly.