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Problem with the Patriot Guard Riders
Kohl Threlkeld, Student/Intern
Monroe | MI | USA | Posted: 11:48 PM on 07.22.08
->> I photographed a funeral today with another photographer from the News Sentinel in Knoxville and i came away with a big concern. A group of motorcyclists called the Patriot Guard Riders showed up to honor a fallen veteran. I was warned by several people at the paper to watch out for these guys because they make it their mission to hassle photographers, and have done so in the past to a couple of our staffers. I was already uneasy about covering a funeral, but felt ok about it because we had full support of the family, something we worked hard to get.

The biker group began attending funerals when radical protesters started to show up at soldiers funerals and protest homosexuality in the military. The Patriot Guard would block them out to give the family some peace. But now the protesters have faded out, the patriot guard has shifted their target to the media.

I have photographed funerals before and everything has gone smoothly. There was good communication between the media and the family, and we were given permission to be there and they understood the reason why, to honor a fallen soldier. But this time, having these guys there did nothing but create problems and conflict. Their presence was more of a spectacle than the actual funeral. They showed up in overwhelming numbers dressed in ragged t-shirts, blue jeans and shorts. As well as head bands and old baseball caps. Meanwhile both of us wore nice shirts and ties. They wear leather vest with dozens of patches (some offensive and vulgar) and they behavior is anything but respectful.
They claim to be there to pay their respects, but today they acted as a barrier between the family and the media. Whenever they could, they blocked our shots and surrounded the family. They carried huge flags and when the casket left the building they formed a shoulder- to-shoulder row so no one, not even friends, could watch it leave. At one point they blocked all of the windows to the building where they family was having private time by assembling side by side and holding their flags up. However, none of the photographers were taking pictures out of our own good conscious. It was all a big show for nothing. When a photog would make a move, they would shift their positions to counteract filling in gaps in their blockade. It was like a game of chess.

Our newspaper worked extremely hard to contact the family and make sure we had full permission to be there. But on the day of the event, these bikers take it into their own hands to cause a scene and make us out to be the bad guys. At any point a family member could have asked us to stop shooting and we would have. By this group being there, they create a false sense of conflict. When a crowd sees them going to great lengths to block us, they must think we did something wrong to make all of these patriots mad at us. There does not need to be a third party to act as a mediator between the media and the family, it only causes problems and leads to miscommunication. We are extremely respectful by using long lenses and staying back behind the crowd. We try to remain as unobtrusive as possible and blend in, but are often forced to move around more just to avoid them. They say they are there for the family, but they seem to be there for themselves.

In addition many of the riders are not veterans. They are bikers that attend funerals and hassle the media. It is hard enough to do our jobs with disapproving visitors not wanting us there, but now we have another group to deal with.

Has anyone else had problems with these guys? Maybe it is just a regional thing, and the other groups are well behaved.

I support their intentions to support a fallen soldier, but somewhere along the way they lost sight of their goal.

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Erik Markov, Photographer
Kokomo | IN | | Posted: 12:05 AM on 07.23.08
->> Thats a real shame Kohl. We've had 3 or 4 vet funerals of iraq soldiers in the past 4 years, the most recent last april. The Patriot Guard have been at all of them and we haven't had any problems with them. The guy who organizes it for funerals around this area is someone who's son was killed in 2003 in Iraq. The paper's had quite a bit of contact with him for stories. He's always willing to work with us, makes sure all the other cyclists understand why they're there etc.

There wasn't any concern about the Kansas church being there last april. A state law had been passed the previous year to prevent that. The riders were there just to show support for the family. And there may have been a few who had some questionable patches on their vests, didn't really pay too much attention to that. But no one harassed me, and we had the permission from the family to be there, that wasn't a problem. They answer any of our questions, give us their names, no real issues.

Hopefully this was an isolated incident for you guys.
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Joshua Scheide, Photographer
Odessa | TX | USA | Posted: 12:34 AM on 07.23.08
->> I too have never had a problem with the Patriot Guard. I've covered half a dozen funerals where they attended in various places around Texas, and they have been nothing but professional every time I've encountered them.

Usually, they can actually make for some really good secondary art depending on where they're standing with their flags and accoutrements. One of my fellow staffers got a beautiful shot of a group of them reflected in some puddles as the hearse drove by.

It's unfortunate you are having such a struggle with them, but I have a feeling it might be the particular people involved in the organization in your area.

Hope it gets better for you in the future!
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Sandy Huffaker, Photographer
San Diego | CA | USA | Posted: 12:38 AM on 07.23.08
->> Kohl,
I'm wondering if you just ran into a bad group of riders. I've shot a number of these memorial services and never had a problem. They usually add a good photographic element to the images with their American flags, motorcycles, big bellies and long beards, sunglasses and all. I also love that they block out those maniac, nut-bar, religious protesters.
BTW, I get pretty good up-to-date information about memorial services from their web site. Here is the link:
It gives the where's and when's of funerals around the country.
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Peter Hoffman, Student/Intern, Photographer
Athens/ Naperville | OH/IL | US | Posted: 12:49 AM on 07.23.08
->> I also think it may be the particular group you are dealing with. I have photographed two or three funerals where they were present and they have all been cordial to me on every occasion, even inviting me to take a ride. Like most places it seems it only takes a few to ruin the rep for many.

I hope your future experiences are different.
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Melanie Maxwell, Photographer
Muncie | IN | USA | Posted: 12:58 AM on 07.23.08
->> Hi Kohl,
I am sorry to hear that you had problems shooting what is already a sensitive and emotional event.

About a month ago I photographed a Marine funeral where around 50 Patriot Guard Riders, mostly from southern Indiana, were present. This is my one and only experience with the group. They were not only respectful, but also helpful as I was approached by two of the riders offering answers to any questions that I may have.

It seems sad to me that any group would take it upon themselves to hinder the documentation of a communities public support to a fallen solider or Marine and their family, as an honor to their sacrifice.

Perhaps you or your paper could start a dialog with the local group and work to educate them on the newspapers role within your shared community. It may be a long shot, but perhaps it could help lessen the tension for the next time.
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Kevin M. Cox, Photographer, Assistant
Galveston / Houston | TX | US | Posted: 1:30 AM on 07.23.08
->> Sorry you had such a bad experience, I can imagine how frustrating it must have been. Luckily I have never had any trouble with them at funerals.

We have also covered several events where they give a soldier returning home a surprise escort, usually to a welcome home party their family and friends are having. Of course they are very happy to have us at those events.

I agree that starting a dialog in a week or two, after allowing time for emotions to calm, would be a good idea.
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Bob Ford, Photographer
Lehighton | Pa | USA | Posted: 9:41 AM on 07.23.08
->> I'll also chime in with a positive experience with the Patriot Guard. I only ran across them at one funeral and they didn't do any of the things you mentioned. The sea of flags that they had added an element that helped some of my photos.
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Tom Suarez, Photographer
Austin | texas | USA | Posted: 10:01 AM on 07.23.08
->> I have photographed several funerals where Patriot Guard Riders were present and have never had any problems with them either. I attended the rider safety meeting before hand and talked to several of them and never had any issues. Usually there will be a ride captain for the particular event who is in charge. I have always looked at the website and found out who it is and they will sometimes have a contact phone number who I will call ahead of time. A lot of times they have scheduling info and will share with me so I know where to set up with out being in the way.

I would check the local chapters website and maybe let someone know what happened. They are usually easy to get along with.
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Derek Montgomery, Photographer
Duluth | MN | USA | Posted: 10:30 AM on 07.23.08
->> Kohl,

Your story almost mirrors what I experienced in February this year. There was a solider from Superior, WI who was killed in action and I was sent on assignment to cover the funeral. Like you, I stayed back with a long lens, dressed nicely and gave the family space.

When I first showed up, a group of the Patriot Riders confronted myself and a reporter and said that no media were allowed near the Church despite the presence of multiple news trucks. I was on a public sidewalk and after a minute or so of talking it became apparent that they simply did not want us around. At that point, two police officers came by and the Patriot Guard Riders abruptly left. Apparently they had hassled a TV photographer earlier pretty well to the point where the police had to intervene.

When the ceremony started, they formed the shoulder to shoulder formation like you stated and raised flags so as to create an almost 10 foot high barrier the length of the front of the church. I was able to remedy this buy standing on top of my Jeep across the street and shooting from there, but I do agree with you that they became much more of a spectacle than anything. Like you, we had permission from the family to shoot the funeral--just not inside the church for obvious reasons.

I came away asking myself who were these guys then did some research and the rest is history I guess. I think in a lot of cases they end up stealing some of the attention away from the soldier and I'm not sure they even realize that happens. I know this is not representative of allPatriot Guard Riders, but your experience was similar to mine.
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David Manning, Photographer
Athens | GA | | Posted: 10:45 AM on 07.23.08
->> I've had pretty good experiences with the Patriot Guard and problems with only one person.

The first funeral - no problem. Everyone was very formal, businesslike and the whatnot. I'd say the Patriot Guard was very professional. We always go through the funeral home and contact the family and make sure that everything is taken care of.

Second funeral, same deal with the exception of one lady. Family is approaching graveside and she comes over to me and says "The family has asked that you not photograph them graveside," which completely contradicts what the funeral home and the family said to us.

Long story short, i just moved my shooting position and got what i wanted. Most of the Patriot Guard has been very helpful, sometimes allowing me to blend in with their flag line so I'm not standing out.

I've had many riders thank me for helping to honor the fallen, some of which lost sons in the current conflicts.
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Aaron Rhoads, Photographer
McComb | MS | USA | Posted: 11:25 AM on 07.23.08
->> No problems here.

Wonder if its the part of the country they're from.
I've had patriot guard members and military personnel tell me that their mouth dropped to the ground by the amount of support(positive) they see falling soldiers and marines get here.

Maybe they're just saying that. But if it's true that may have something to do with their reation to the media.
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Blaine McCartney, Photographer
Columbus | NE | USA | Posted: 11:39 AM on 07.23.08
->> The only funeral I covered was that of a Marine, and I didn't have any problems with the Patriot Guard.
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Nina Zhito, Photographer
bay area | CA | | Posted: 11:56 AM on 07.23.08
->> working with them in the northbay has been, in my limited experience --3 funerals-- strongly positive. i don't know if the chapters speak with one another, if so -- you are welcome to contact me off list and i put you in touch with someone from their "command" here for more insight.
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Kohl Threlkeld, Student/Intern
Monroe | MI | USA | Posted: 1:02 PM on 07.23.08
->> Derek,

I think you illustrate the point that i am trying to make. By them forcing you to go to drastic measures to stand on on your car, they have created a completely unnecessary situation that detracts from the real reason we are there, to respectfully give tribute to a fallen soldier. I wonder what all of the visitors must think seeing a photographer forced to stand on his car to make a picture. It gives off the impression that we are not wanted, yet decided to stick around anyway doing whatever it takes just to get the shot. When in reality the family has given us permission to be there, and we would be much less of a disturbance if just left alone to do our jobs. The last thing i want to do is have one more person assume i am preying on a grieving family just to get a picture.

Thanks for everyone giving your input, its good to know its not a widespread problem. I was happy to have these guys here when the crazy protesters were disrupting funerals, but not anymore.

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Mike Ullery, Photographer, Photo Editor
Piqua | OH | USA | Posted: 1:19 PM on 07.23.08
->> I have covered two funerals in the past year, most recently Marine Cpl. Maria Lauterbach. The Patriot Guard riders were at both and I found them to be not only great to work around but really nice folks. Sorry that you had problems.
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Alan Stewart, Photographer
Corydon | IN | USA | Posted: 1:47 PM on 07.23.08
->> The Patriot Guard members I've encountered have gone out of their way to help me. Whether it's getting names or asking if they are in my way, or whatever, they've been nothing short of great to work with.

And Kohl, you don't have to be a veteran to be in the Patriot Guard.

From the organization's mission statement on their website:

"The Patriot Guard Riders is a diverse amalgamation of riders from across the nation. We have one thing in common besides motorcycles. We have an unwavering respect for those who risk their very lives for America’s freedom and security. If you share this respect, please join us. We don’t care what you ride, what your political views are, or whether you’re a "hawk" or a "dove". It is not a requirement that you be a veteran. It doesn't matter where you’re from or what your income is. You don’t even have to ride. The only prerequisite is Respect. Our main mission is to attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family. Each mission we undertake has two basic objectives:
1) Show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities.
2) 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."
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Jeff Stanton, Photographer
Princeton | IN | USA | Posted: 2:06 PM on 07.23.08
->> Kohl, it sounds like that group is very misguided and have forgotten the real reason why they are there, and that is to honor the fallen soldier.

I wouldn't call it asking "permission" from a family. You don't need anyone's permission to stand outside on a city street to photograph. I would call it receiving the family's "blessing." It makes matters much easier and there are fewer surprises.

David made mention of a woman approaching him and telling him what he couldn't shoot. Yeah, there seems to be one self-appointed person there who feels they need to protect the family. You did the right thing by just moving a bit and you still got your shots. Well done.
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Marcus Marter, Photographer
South Bend | IN | United States | Posted: 7:21 PM on 07.23.08
->> My experiences with the Patriot Guard Riders has been positive as well. For the most part the riders form an honor guard typically at the front of the church and stay there throughout the service. Aside from the jeans and t-shirts at such an event their behavior has been professional and respectful.
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Sefton Ipock, Photographer
Anderson | SC | | Posted: 1:37 PM on 07.24.08
->> I've never had a problem with the Patriot Guard at the funerals I've covered. In fact, they helped me get better access one time.

At a firefighter's funeral, I was told to stand back about 50 yards from the front of the church by the media relations guy from the department. I was fine with that until the Patriot Guard came and blocked my view of the casket coming out. I told the media relations guy that since he was allowing members of the general public (the Patriot Guard) close to the church, he could not keep me further away.

He said "Don't quote media law to me, I've been doing this for 30 years."

"Then you know I'm right," I said as I began walking towards the church.

It was actually nice to have the motorcyclists there (although I have no idea why they were at a firefighter's funeral considering they were formed to run interference at soldiers' funerals) because it allowed me some cover to not be obtrusive. I just knelt down among them and remained inconspicuous.

They knew I was there to work and I think appreciated the fact that I wasn't dressed like a slouch and showed respect to deceased and his family.
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Kohl Threlkeld, Student/Intern
Monroe | MI | USA | Posted: 1:47 PM on 07.24.08
->> Im glad most everyone has had positive experiences with them. After receiving many emails, several from patriot guard riders, i don't think the problem lies in the Patriot Guard as a group, but instead perhaps with maybe a few overzealous members, which can be found in just about every organization. I hope that in the future we can iron out a few kinks in the chain of communication to make things run smoothly. Thanks for your input.
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Andrew Foulk, Photographer
Menifee | CA | United States | Posted: 2:26 PM on 07.24.08
->> Kohl,

I have to agree with most of the people in this post and with the e-mails you received. I just covered a funeral that the Patriot Guard put on for a soldier who was killed in Iraq in March . The guard did everything they could to help in getting me better images. At one point they had formed a circle around the family as they were saying prayers, one of the guard saw that a wasn't able to get a shot, so he moved from his spot and asked me to take it from him. I declined because I wanted to give the family their space. All and all the experience I had with this group was one of the best I have ever had at a funeral, an already difficult event to photograph.
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Jim Colburn, Photo Editor, Photographer
McAllen | TX | USA | Posted: 10:44 AM on 07.25.08
->> The problem I have with groups like the "Patriot Guard Riders" and the thousands that ride through DC during "Rolling Thunder" is that their stated purpose ("Show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities.") is belied by the lack of respect that many show with their manner of dress and insistence on riding loud, straight-pipe Harleys that shatter any peace and quiet that may exist.

If they really wanted to show respect for the deceased they'd show up in suits-and-ties and use the quiet family sedan to get there.
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Michael Granse, Photographer
Urbana | IL | USA | Posted: 11:36 AM on 07.25.08
->> I am having a difficult time imagining how a lack of suits and sedans translates into a lack of respect for a fallen soldier.
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Luke Sharrett, Student/Intern
Forest | VA | United States | Posted: 9:54 PM on 07.25.08
->> Never had a problem with PGR. Maybe try contacting the captain of the local chapter in Knoxville? I know alot of the riders feel betrayed by the media in a way.
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Doug Thompson, Photographer
Floyd | VA | | Posted: 10:54 PM on 07.25.08
->> I'm also having a problem with equating suits and ties and "quiet family sedans" with respect.

I've ridden my Harley in several Rolling Thunders and covered several others as a shooter and have found a ton of respect from those who participate in Thunder and from the vast majority of Patriot Guard riders.

When did we, as shooters, start judging others by how they dress? More than a few of us have come under fire for our attire.

I've passed the link to this thread on to those I know who are part of the PG leadership in the hope that they can work to keep others from casting a shadow on their organization by causing the problems that Kohl suggested but let's not cast a similar shadow by showcasing our prejudice against those who choose to show respect and honor the fallen in their own ways.
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Jim Colburn, Photo Editor, Photographer
McAllen | TX | USA | Posted: 5:07 AM on 07.26.08
->> "I am having a difficult time imagining how a lack of suits and sedans translates into a lack of respect for a fallen soldier."

1) Noise, lots of it. Too much of it.

I covered many years of "Rolling Thunder" and for many participants it's little more than an excuse to ride around DC and make noise.

2) An unkempt appearance shows disrespect for the dead.

The old jackets, the colors, the vulgar patches and stickers (I remember one proud RT rider with a patch on his back that read, "If you can read this the bitch fell off") do not lend themselves to what I would consider to be a proper decorum to show respect for our military dead. Just showing up isn't enough.
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Doug Thompson, Photographer
Floyd | VA | | Posted: 6:25 AM on 07.26.08
->> Jim, I'm sorry but I feel you are condemning the commendable actions of many because of what you see as the problems of a few. It's like those who condemn the photojournalism profession because of the actions of paparazzi.

Yes, Harleys (and some other bikes) are loud but who are we to judge that as a sign of disrespect? You conclude that Thunder is "little more than an excuse to ride around DC and make noise." As a vet and an early participant in the event I am offended by such an off-hand dismissal.

I have one of the t-shirts that says "if you can read this, the bitch fell off." My wife, who has her own bike, sometimes wears one that says "I'm the bitch and I have my own ride." We don't wear such shirts to Thunder but you should remember that one man's joke is another's obscenity.

You say "just showing up isn't enough." Perhaps but how many people think of Memorial Day as just another holiday and a reason to have picnics and drink? The thousands upon thousands who appear at Thunder are showing not only respect for those who died for their country but also bringing attention to those who remain missing and forgotten.

The White House apparently didn't think Rolling Thunder was too loud, too unkempt and disrespectful. Bush invited their leaders in for a visit this past year and has done so most years of his Presidency. Perhaps it was a photo op or perhaps it was genuine respect. But it shows the impact of the event.

We all mourn in different ways. We remember the dead in different ways. Our job as journalists is to cover the news without drawing conclusions or making value judgments. Whether you or I agree with the concept of Thunder is irrelevant. It is a major news story and deserves attention.

As for the issue that started this thread, I contacted the PGR leaders I know. Here is the report that they have posted on their forum:

"OK, folks, long story short version. The family of Cpl. Jason Hovater requested that the wife and Cpl. Hovater's best friend who was with him at the time of his death be allowed some private time after the public service had ended. The photographer in question had continued to try to get "a front page photo" during this time. The PGR was simply honoring the family’s request for more, no less. What you may find even more interesting in the photo at the rotunda is that the couple standing front and center shielding the family are the parents of another fallen hero who had their privacy invaded by photographers from the same news paper within the last year or so."

Who was right and who was wrong? As so often happens, it depends on your point of view. It reminds me of the prologue in movie producer Robert Evan's book, "The Kid Stays in the Picture:"

"There are three sides to this story: My side, their side and the truth...And no one is lying."
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Jim Colburn, Photo Editor, Photographer
McAllen | TX | USA | Posted: 8:36 PM on 07.26.08
->> "Harleys (and some other bikes) are loud but who are we to judge that as a sign of disrespect?"

Harleys, per se, are not that loud. They are made loud with after-market exhausts and straight pipes. Check out the non-noisy Harleys that are riding around Europe where they aren't allowed loud exhausts. I've been riding for 30+ years (mostly BMWs) and have never had a loud exhaust on a bike. I have actually had people compliment me on my motorcycle's lack of noise.

When was the last time you went to a funeral and heard the priest/minister/rabbi/whatever ask everyone to talk as loudly as they could during the service? Or sound their car horns during the ride to the cemetery?

" man's joke..."

So what's the big laugh at Rolling Thunder? I saw that patch and numerous other patches/stickers that I, and most thinking people, would believe to be inapproriate to the occasion.

"Bush invited their leaders in..."

The same George W. that keeps trying to throttle back veterans benefits? He's shown himself to care little about those that serve, or have served, in our military.

It's a funeral. Dress up, not down. Show some respect.
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Suzette Harrigal, Photographer
The Woodlands | TX | USA | Posted: 8:37 PM on 07.26.08
->> Three times I have shot events where the PGR have served a mission (the Southeast Texas Chapter). At first I was a little more than slightly taken back by how they accomplish their missions. If you've shared the grounds with them you know what I mean. If not, you can't really offer a qualified opinion on the subject. After geting to know many of the individuals a little better, I now understand that it was my lack of understanding and viewing them through my "colored glasses" that lead to my initial misgivings about them or what they do. At the events I have shot, at all times they have been focused and deliberate in what they are there to do. Never have they been discourtesous or disrepectful. But they are very serious and deliberate. I guess they have to be. As their patch says..."to stand for those who stood for US." Clear, right? I updated my page with a couple PGR images from the events.
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Doug Thompson, Photographer
Floyd | VA | | Posted: 9:56 PM on 07.26.08
->> Suzette:

You stated it beautifully. Bias can cloud all our judgments and bias is something we in this profession should be trained to avoid.
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Thread Title: Problem with the Patriot Guard Riders
Thread Started By: Kohl Threlkeld
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