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Bikers ride to honor slain troops

POSTED: July 30, 2008 5:02 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders stand at attention in honor of Cpl. Matthew Phillips, who was among nine American soldiers killed July 13 in a battle in Afghanistan, on Wednesday at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville.

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COAL MOUNTAIN — Gene Altman of Jessup saddled up early Saturday for a one-way, 280-mile trip astride his Harley-Davidson. The grizzled veteran had another funeral to go to — another fallen soldier to honor.

Altman is Georgia state captain for the Patriot Guard Riders, a multistate biker club whose motto is "standing for those who stood for us." On Saturday he rallied his motorcycle-riding troops for the Forsyth County funeral of Army Cpl. Matthew Phillips, a 27-year-old who was killed July 13 in combat in Afghanistan.

Last week in Lawrenceville, Altman and his fellow riders attended the funeral of another soldier from Phillips’ unit who had been killed in the same battle.

On Saturday, more than 160 bikes carrying some 200 Patriots roared into town for the Phillips funeral. After parking their bikes, the members formed a flag-bearing phalanx around the Coal Mountain Baptist Church. They came from nearly all points — North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and South Georgia.

Many are veterans, some are not. Most are men, some are women. All share a love of riding and a deep, patriotic commitment to the troops. They wear the customary biker fashions: bandanas around the head, sunglasses, tattoos, jeans, boots and leather vests. But look closely at the vests and you’re likely to see patches devoted to military service.

"What we are are the faces of America," Altman said. "We have to have a title, but in reality, we’re the faces of America. We’re here to let the families know that their soldier made the right choice. We’re here for their sacrifice."

In the past two-and-a-half years since the Patriot Guard Riders formed, its members have served as an unofficial civilian honor guard on more than 100 "gold star" funerals, or funerals honoring soldiers killed in action.

They also provide details for military veteran funerals and accompany wounded soldiers arriving back in the states. "Those are the feel-good missions," Altman said.

On Saturday, it was another "honor mission."

"Everyone is emotional," he said. "I would imagine 99 percent of our members shed tears. If you don’t get emotional at something like this, you should find something else to do."

The riders don’t go unappreciated.

Phillips’ father said earlier this week he was "overwhelmed" by the motorcade that escorted his son’s body from a Gainesville airport.

Said Army Maj. Tal Sheppard, who accompanied Brig. Gen. Tim Crosby to Saturday’s funeral, "what they do is amazing."

Altman said he’s heard from numerous area riders in the past week.

"We’ve probably had 25 new members join up since last Sunday," he said.



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