Funeral draws protestors

Family requests help from Patriot Guard

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Larry Shaw Real Estate

Thursday, June 1, 2006

GALESBURG - Retired Sgt. 1st Class Max Howerter of Galesburg said there could be 100 to 150 members of the Patriot Guard Riders here Friday for the funeral of Pfc. Caleb Lufkin of Knoxville.

The service will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Bethel Baptist Church.

Howerter, a Vietnam veteran who served 23 years in the Army, said the Patriot Guard is invited by the families.

"We only do what the family desires," he said. "Our first mission is to show honor and respect to the family, friends and the community of the fallen soldier."

The second part of the group's mission statement is to "shield the mourning family and friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors. We accomplish the latter through strictly legal and non-violent means."

The riders will be called on to uphold that mission as well. A group from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., has received a permit to protest before the funeral, according to Capt. Lindsey May of the Galesburg Police Department.

"They will be just outside the 200 feet" boundary set by the law, so will be able to protest from 10:15 until 11 a.m., May said. He said they will be on the northeast corner of Academy and Fremont streets.

The Westboro Baptist group came to Galesburg Nov. 15, 2005, for the funeral of Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Wehrly, who also was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Students from Knox College stood silently in front of the group that day and blocked the protestors from the family's view. The Westboro group believes the deaths of American soldiers is God's way of retaliating against America, which it says has been taken over by homosexuals.

Howerter said the Patriot Guard will meet between 8 and 8:30 a.m. behind Wal-Mart for a briefing.

Howerter said they never know how many members will arrive.

"They come from all over," he said. "Some drive six to eight hours."

The group is largely comprised of veterans who ride motorcycles but neither is a requirement to become a Patriot Guard Rider.

The group helped escort Lufkin's body back from O'Hare International Airport.

"When they left Chicago to Princeton, it was raining so hard people were pulling off the road," he said. "Our guys rode on."

Howerter said if protestors show up, "we block them from the view of the family. We turn our backs to them (protestors), which is a sign of disrespect."

Guard members carry 3-by-5-foot flags on poles ranging from 6 to 10 feet tall.

"If (protestors) happen to get noisy or rowdy, we will sing or turn on a couple of Harleys and drown them out," Howerter said. "We do not conflict with them. ... We call it like a tunnel of flags for the family. We will stand outside the church until the service is done."

After the service, "the guys will get mounted up and will be part of the procession to the cemetery," Howerter said.

Earlier this year the General Assembly passed a law making it illegal for protestors to demonstrate within 200 feet of a funeral service for 30 minutes before, during or 30 minutes after the ceremony. The Patriot Guard Riders do not need a permit because "They are invited by the family. ... They're not planning on doing any protesting," said May.

Howerter said the funeral for Pfc. Lufkin is particularly tough because "prior to this, we were working on a welcome home for this young man."

Lufkin was injured May 4 but died May 25 of cardiac arrest while undergoing surgery at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

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