02/15/2013 -- MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. − When a young soldier returned home from the war in Vietnam in the spring of 1970, there were no welcome-home signs or family members waiting for him.
With little to no communication, a young soldier was often disconnected from his family and bypassed in family matters.
One service member, hours after arriving home, learned of his cousin’s wedding and prepared his uniform for the occasion.
The following day, as he approached the ceremony, three men stopped him and demanded he leave the church because he was not welcome while in uniform. As he swallowed the lump in his throat and turned away in resignation, he caught his aunt’s gaze as she simply watched him leave.
The memory of that day still haunts Charles Johnson, a 64-year-old war veteran and native of Sylmar, Calif.
"To experience that kind of direct animosity was terrible,” said Johnson. “I didn’t want that to happen to anyone else who came back.”
Now, 40 years later, Johnson is a member of the Patriotic Guard Riders, a diverse union of bikers from across the nation, who have more in common than just motorcycles. They have an unwavering respect for America’s service members.
During their missions, riders will embellish their bikes, buses, or cars in patriotic decorations and lead convoys during welcome-home ceremonies, memorials, veterans’ funerals, departures, and Toys for Tots programs.
These riders act as escorts for the buses of service members reuniting with their families after a deployment. They also contribute as road guards for mourning family members as they travel to their fallen service member’s final destination. From the instant they land on U.S. soil to the moment the service members are buried or reunited with loved ones, the Patriotic Guard Riders are there providing any support they can.
For the 300,000 veteran, civilian, and active duty participants, it is not about recognition but about service and showing their gratitude for the military members.
Over the last six years, Johnson has completed hundreds of missions with the organization. However, this job is far from easy. There is a lot of planning and coordination that goes into each mission.
"We do it because of our intense patriotism and our desire to give them the welcome home we didn’t get,” said Johnson.
Johnson not only participates in Patriotic Guard Rider missions, but also dedicates his time to bringing public awareness to difficulties that stem from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Anyone can do something to help,” said Johnson. “My mission in life is to let people know about it. Let the average citizen know that they can contribute.”
He stresses the fact that a simple thank you to service members can make a difference and that everyone can do their part to support those struggling with the effects of war.
Will he ever stop riding?
“They are dying for us, and we will ride for them until the day we die.”