Kevin Lucas, right, and his friend, Rick Rhome, pose for a photo Feb. 27 next to a portrait of Lucas' deceased son, Adam Lucas, in Greensboro, N.C. Adam Lucas was killed in action while serving a tour of duty in Iraq in 2006. Rhome, a Patriot Guard Rider, joined the Patriot Guard when he heard about planned protests surrounding Adam's funeral. Since then, Rhome and Lucas have developed a strong friendship. (AP)
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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Rick Rohme is a bear of a man.
His physical attributes — 6-foot-4, 320 pounds — and willingness to get nasty when necessary provided a living in his younger years.
That’s when Rohme worked security for the likes of heavy metal groups Metallica and Motley Crue. Back then he spent his time separating throngs of groupies from his rockstar employers and performing such mundane tasks as removing all brown M&Ms from dressing rooms, as specifically stated in Van Halen’s contract.
But that chapter of his life has been closed for years. Rohme, 54 years old and the owner of a specialty-lighting business, no longer spends endless days riding tour buses and commercial jets with the rich and famous. The most glamorous thing he might do is attend a concert as a ticket-buying fan, though his earrings, spiked hair and well-trimmed goatee might hint at his previous life.
On a recent late-winter afternoon, however, Rohme merely sat on a couch next to a still-grieving father he now calls his friend.
Sitting in Kevin Lucas’ living room, they spent that day together like most 50-somethings — swapping stories and horsing around. They poke fun at one another and complain as middle-age men do before getting to the big question.
Just how did this unlikely friendship come about?
The clowning stops. Both know their lives intersect because of an untimely death and the presence of the Patriot Guard Riders.
The Patriot Guard Riders is a nonprofit organization whose mission for eight years has been to provide support at funerals for armed forces members, firefighters and police officers. It does so with a motorcade of motorcycles and other support vehicles that can number in the hundreds.
The Patriot Guard’s ranks include Rohme, a Jamestown resident whose “military service” was limited to being an Air Force brat growing up. Wearing a white button-up shirt with “Patriot Guard — North Carolina” on the left side of his chest, Rohme usually collects his thoughts and considers his words carefully before speaking. That is, until asked how he got involved.
It was shortly after May 26, 2006. That’s the day a 20-year-old Marine from Greensboro stepped up to take the point position during a foot patrol in Anbar province, Iraq, for a squadmate who had a pregnant wife at home and said he had a bad feeling about being in the lead. By that soldier’s own account, Lance Cpl. Kevin Adam Lucas didn’t hesitate to step to the front, only to be killed by a sniper about 30 minutes later.
On the Memorial Day preceding Lucas’ funeral, just days after that incident in Iraq, President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act. The law bans protests at national cemeteries within 300 feet of the grounds’ entrance and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery, from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral. Services for Lucas were the first, at least at Arlington National Cemetery, after the law went into effect. Protesters still planned to line the roads leading into the cemetery.
Lucas’ selfless act — along with the idea that a law was necessary to protect what is considered common decency — prompted Rohme to act.
“He was the reason I joined,” said Rohme, who operated two businesses when he enlisted in the Patriot Guard and has since closed one to spend more time with the group. “I saw about it on the news and realized how much it moved me, how bad I felt about it. I then saw about protesters and felt I needed to do something.”
There’s an awkward silence as both men stare at the floor.
The Patriot Guard was formed in 2005 at American Legion Post 136 in Mulvane, Kan. The organization’s initial mission was to protect the deceased’s family against such protesters as those from the Westboro Baptist Church, a group claiming that deaths of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are divine retribution for American tolerance of homosexuality.
Patriot Guard members position themselves to shield the mourners from the protesters by blocking the protesters from view with their motorcade, or by having members hold American flags. The group also drowns out the protesters’ chants by singing patriotic songs or by revving motorcycle engines.
Although initially founded by motorcyclists, the organization is open to anyone, regardless of political affiliation, veteran status or whether they ride or not. The only prerequisite is “a deep respect for those who serve our country; military, firefighters or law enforcement.”
There is no headquarters; the organization is operated remotely from points around the county by its board of directors and other staff. Missions are organized through Internet postings or word of mouth.
But that hasn’t kept the group from growing.
More than 282,000 members are registered in the Patriot Guard’s database, with 112 joining at the end of last week alone. Rohme, now a ride captain, says he’s been joined on the highways, city streets and country roads by as many as 2,000 fellow riders and by as few as a half dozen. The number doesn’t matter. He says that even one rider in tribute is as valuable as 100. Some missions have been planned for weeks; others are turned around in less than 24 hours.
And missions are never aborted. Rohme has ridden his customized 2000 Yamaha Roadstar “many times” in rain and even with snow flying.
“None of us look to be the leader of the pack,” Rohme said. “It’s all about those people we’re there to protect and to show respect for our heroes.”
Steady growth has enabled the Patriot Guard to expand its reach from just one-day missions to assisting families in a more long-term fashion.
The group created the Fallen Warrior Scholarship Fund to provide financial assistance to family members of military personnel who have given their lives. Money comes from various local fundraising events and donations.
The one-year scholarships, awarded annually to help with tuition, books and supplies, are a minimum of $2,000. The scholarships are not automatically renewable, and the total number of yearly scholarships is capped at four a person. According to Lee Anderson, the Patriot Guard’s treasurer who lives in South Carolina, 15 scholarships were awarded in 2012.
Missions have been held for veterans of nearly every American conflict of the past century.
In addition to funerals, there are also the celebratory events, such as the welcome-home escort it provided Saturday in Archdale for SPC Jeremy Young. Young, 23, has spent the past eight months recovering from wounds suffered while on duty in Afghanistan.
He was shot after his patrol settled in for the night near an Afghan army camp. Young, unarmed and waiting to begin his shift at guard duty, encountered an Afghan soldier with an automatic weapon. The Afghani got off 15 shots at Young, three of which were absorbed by Young’s body armor. The other 12 bullets peppered him from top to bottom. Young is still undergoing surgical procedures, but he’s regained mobility in his extremities and can walk with assistance.
About 100 motorcyclists escorted him home Saturday, including Rohme. He also led the procession when the Patriot Guard escorted Sgt. Harold Brown, a casualty in the Korean War, to his final resting place in December.
Brown was captured Dec. 12, 1950, and his death was reported as Dec. 30, 1950, likely from exposure to the harsh North Korean winter weather. He was thought missing until his remains were identified late last year and turned over to his family. More than six decades after enlisting, Brown returned home to Yadkin County and was laid to rest in a cemetery in Hamptonville in style — with a 65-person, 55-motorcycle procession of military supporters.
“It meant so much,” said Lucy Swain, Brown’s 69-year-old first cousin. “He was a hero, but they [the Patriot Guard] were a hero to me for doing that. To come and ride with him, for each one of them to speak to us one by one, to pay their respects and tell us they would be there for us. It meant so much.”
The past six-plus years have been difficult for Kevin Lucas.
He’s had a heart attack, dealt with unemployment for the past couple of years and suffered the loss of his only son. He and his wife, Sandy, have received condolences from across the nation, including a meeting with President Bush and an outpouring of respect by servicemen, from discharged enlisted men all the way up to generals.
Those instances have resulted in a few good memories, but otherwise prove to be just an opportunity to exhale before once again shouldering the reality of their loss.
It’s the other times, such as that unexpected afternoon sitting on the couch, that Kevin Lucas said helps with the healing. That moment wouldn’t have happened if not for the Patriot Guard Riders.
Lucas, 55, and Rohme were complete strangers seven years ago. But their friendship has grown since Rohme first heard of the younger Lucas’ sacrifice. The men talk regularly, sometimes picking on each other and sometimes offering shoulders for sympathy.
The Lucas family said it has had sporadic contact with the Marine their son replaced during that ill-fated patrol. Those communications have been initiated by that Marine but rarely reciprocated. The feelings toward him are too complicated and too painful, Lucas said. With their family scattered from the East Coast to Hawaii, Kevin and Sandy often deal with the grief by themselves.
“It helps because there’s no blood family here, we live away from them,” Lucas said. “It’s just us. But they [the Patriot Guard] are always there and have always been there for us. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it makes it easier.”
Rohme sits quietly. He says he knows what the Patriot Guard means to him; he can only imagine what it means to a family. The Patriot Guard offered protection in the days after the death of the younger Lucas and comfort in the years since. The group even paid for the family to visit its son’s grave in Arlington last Memorial Day.
Lucas reaches over and grabs his friend’s arm.
“Rick told me he actually had changed his life when he saw our son on the news,” Lucas said. “Show ‘em the tattoo, Rick.”
Lucas is referring to the American flag artwork covering Rohme’s entire back, the tattoo that also has Adam Lucas’ name in it. The father says the man next to him is one of eight people he knows of who have chosen to honor his son by putting permanent ink to flesh.
Rohme stands up to show a visitor, and then hesitates, not out of shame but because he insists it’s not about him. It’s not really even about the Patriot Guard, he says, but the men and women it honors. That includes a young Greensboro man he had never met but who he says he thinks about all the time.
Asked to elaborate, Rohme gathers his words before quoting a patch on the vest he wears during missions.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Rohme said. “I think that explains it all. And we’re very serious about that.”
Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, http://www.journalnow.com