WARNER ROBINS AFB -- Military members probably have a deeper appreciation for Memorial Day than most, but it's what J.R. Bedford has done since he left the Air Force that has given him a better understanding of the annual observance.
In 2007, he and his wife, Patti, were sitting in a restaurant in Warner Robins when she saw a story in a newspaper about a group of motorcyclists escorting the funeral of a local soldier killed in action.
Their son, an Army officer, had just been sent to Iraq, his first deployment.
"She asked me if I had ever heard of the Patriot Guard Riders," he said. "I went home and read their mission statement, and I told her I can't see any better reason to ride a motorcycle than to honor our military."
Two weeks later, he was in Ringgold escorting his first funeral, or what the riders call a mission. Since then he has ridden in more than 200 funerals, and his wife has been in almost as many. A Warner Robins resident, he is now the group's assistant state captain over the Southeast region.
He served 20 years in the Air Force, but it was his experiences in the Patriot Guard Riders that led him to research more about those who have died in war.
"To find out almost two and a half million men and women have given their lives for our country is difficult for me to even comprehend," he said. "It's something each one of us should take time to think about."
The Patriot Guard Riders began in 2005 in response to a fringe church group in Kansas that protests funerals of troops killed in combat. The riders form a line between the protesters and the family and use flags to block the view. They also rev their motorcycle engines or sing patriotic songs to drown out the protesters' chants.
The organization grew rapidly and within a year had chapters in almost every state. Today it has 300,000 members nationwide and about 5,000 in Georgia, said Jim Warren, the state captain.
Members do not have to be veterans or even have a motorcycle. Bedford gave up his bike after an accident last year and is currently restoring a Willys 1952 M-38 Army jeep he plans to use on missions.
The church group isn't seen much anymore at military funerals and has never been to a funeral the Bedfords have escorted. They like to think the Patriot Guard Riders had something to do with that.
While the riders' primary purpose is to escort funerals of those killed in action, it also does funerals for veterans, police officers and other emergency personnel, as well as escorting troops returning home.
They only do it if the family requests it, and those of active-duty members usually do.
J.R. Bedford vividly remembers his first funeral. In a scene that would be repeated over and over, thousands in the community lined the streets holding up signs of support for the family.
No matter how many times he does it, it's always an emotional experience.
"I don't know of any mission I've been on for KIAs that it hasn't been a real all-out effort just to try to drive the bike down the road," he said. "You see the people along the road, people who have served in World War II and Vietnam, and the young ones who have just come back, all standing there saluting. The tears just run down your face, and you are blurred."
Patti Bedford said she initially had reservations about getting involved with the group.
"Some people question how I could do that with my own son being in war, but I have to put myself in that mother's shoes," she said. "You have to come out of your comfort zone and try to be there for someone else."
Families regularly come up and thank the riders after a funeral. J.R. Bedford said at his first funeral, the father came to him and cried on his shoulder. That has happened many times since, but his favorite memory was the first funeral in which his wife stood in the flag line.
The family started going down the line shaking the hands of each rider. One noticed the blue star patch on Patti's leather vest signifying she had a child serving in the military. The woman asked her about it, and Patti told her she had a son in Iraq at that very moment.
"The lady immediately turned and called the family over," J.R. said. "The whole family just engulfed Patti and gave her hugs and all of them prayed for her and our son. That to me was one of the most touching things, that through such sorrow they could give so much to another family."
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.