- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

BATESVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Vietnam veteran John Gallegos spent years honoring returning veterans with a homecoming he never had.

As a member of the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR), John wanted to pay respect to the men and women serving in the military by attending homecomings and funerals. In June, after a long health battle, it was his turn to be honored, the Batesville Guard (https://bit.ly/1NT96cN ) reported.

The Patriot Guard Riders organization got its beginning in August 2005 after Westboro Baptist Church members began protesting the funerals of fallen soldiers. It was started by the American Legion Riders Chapter 136 in Mulvane, Kansas.

“They were appalled to hear that a fallen hero’s memory was being tarnished by misguided religious zealots who were protesting at funerals. They decided to do something about it,” according to www.patriotguard.org.

With the family’s permission, members attend the funeral services of fallen soldiers to show respect and to shield the mourning family and friends from interruptions created by any protester or group of protesters.

It was through another motorcycle group that Gallegos and his wife, Leslie, got involved with Patriot Guard Riders. It was 2008 and the couple was living in Elk Grove, California.

“He felt he needed to pay his respects to those people because he didn’t get his when he came back from Vietnam. He felt real strong about that,” Leslie said of her late husband.

John and Leslie would ride to the Sacramento International Airport to welcome home the soldiers who had made it home from Afghanistan and Iraq - or their remains.

“You could see how much it touched them people, (us) coming out to welcome them home,” Leslie recalled.

She and her husband also attended funerals, and like all PGR members, did so at their own expense.

“We’ll encircle the family at funerals to keep protesters out. We were fortunate the ones we were involved with never had any protesters,” Leslie said. “I think that was his way to give back, was being involved with them. …. You just have tears when you’re riding seeing all those people on the sides of the streets holding American flags. It brings tears to your eyes.”

In all, the couple attended around 25 Patriot Guard Riders events, including three that were of fallen soldiers’ remains.

Patriot Guard Riders members stepped up in 2014 when the couple’s grandson, Andrey Gallegos, died in a motorcycle accident.

“He was National Guard. They came from surrounding states to be part of it,” Leslie said.

Andrey Gallegos was the son of John’s daughter, Shelly Lippincott, who said she knew her father and stepmother were members of Patriot Guard Riders, but she didn’t have a full appreciation of the organization.

“I’m getting contact from them a year and a half after he passed,” she said. “They go above and beyond the call of duty. They go all out.”

Lippincott said she too is ready to volunteer for the organization and has since donated to the cause.

___

According to his wife, John lied to get into the Army at the age of 17 to follow in the footsteps of his father.

“He wanted to fly the helicopters,” Leslie said.

But his age prevented him from doing so and instead of flying helicopters, John became responsible for taking care of one as a crew chief.

“He named her Susie for a girlfriend,” Leslie said, referring to the helicopter.

“Susie” was later retired and put in a museum in Nebraska. While John became too sick to see his beloved helicopter, Lippincott made the trek and got photos for him.

John found a brotherhood with his fellow soldiers, especially Ken Kofoid, Jeff Fulkerson and Jim Davis.

“He was an only child so they were truly brothers to him,” Leslie said.

After the war, John searched for his buddies for 45 years and ended up finding them all in the same week.

“He was ecstatic,” Leslie said.

After finding his friends, John got a tattoo on his right upper arm that read, “We went as strangers and came home as brothers.” The tattoo included four dog tags with each one’s name.

Kofoid lived in Floral and was one of the reasons the Gallegoses moved to Arkansas in 2012. The renewed friendships gave someone for John to talk to about his experiences in the war he would not discuss with anyone else.

“They would sit out by the fire for hours by themselves,” Leslie said.

The talks helped John, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that went undiagnosed until 2010.

Leslie had no idea he was silently suffering and thought his everyday actions were just “quirks.”

“He was real hyper vigilant. Every single night he went around the whole house to make sure everything was all right. He didn’t like large crowds. He couldn’t sit with his back to the door. If I ran out for errands, he was constantly on the phone wondering when I was coming home,” Leslie said.

“He had PTSD really bad. He was 100 percent disabled because of that.”

___

The PTSD was on top of what John was already dealing with. In 2003 he was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (a disease of the bile ducts, which carry the digestive liquid bile from the liver to the small intestine). He had been placed on a liver transplant list.

“It’s a rare disease,” Leslie said. “He was adamant it was from Agent Orange.”

Agent Orange was a blend of herbicides sprayed by the U.S. military from 1962 to 1971 during the Vietnam War to remove trees and dense tropical foliage that provided enemy cover.

In January, John was diagnosed with yet another illness - sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that affects multiple organs in the body, but mostly the lungs and lymph glands. He had to go on 100 percent oxygen.

“In June we were told he had months to live,” Leslie said. “He died two days later.”

That was on June 26, 2015.

“He was very quiet and reserved but he had a heart of gold and would help anybody out in any situation whatsoever. He loved being a Vietnam vet. He was very into his Harley (Davidson motorcycle), Denver Broncos and NASCAR,” Leslie said.

Several PGR members attended John’s funeral and created a flag line outside the chapel for friends and family.

Lippincott said Patriot Guard Riders escorted the hearse to the grave site more than an hour away and once there, held up flags and presented a flag to the family.

“We forget their sacrifices go on after service,” Lippincott said.

___

Information from: Batesville Guard, https://www.guardonline.com/


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