They wanted U.S. Army Sgt. Josh Hargis to know he was not alone.
The Patriot Guard Riders and state volunteers came Sunday to Page Field Airport to welcome the wounded soldier, his wife and her Cape Coral family. As Hargis left the Fort Myers airfield in a family SUV, a long string of Patriot Guard Riders' motorcycles and cars joined police escorting the soldier and his in-laws to their Cape home. It was an impression only zooming motorcycles, streaming flags and police sirens can deliver.
Lining the inside of the airport terminal bearing flags, the riders had just surprised Hargis and his wife, Taylor, arriving from a rehabilitation center by charter flight. The military formality of the welcoming quickly dissolved, the volunteers circling the soldier and his family, reaching to embrace or touch, to salute, gestures of deep gratitude, mourning his injuries and lost comrades but thrilled to thank a hero.
In his wheelchair sat the stunned soldier, thanking them in return, only doing his Army Ranger job, he said. It was like Santa Claus thanking the children, and why, it was said Sunday, Patriot Guard Riders wear sunglasses inside. Hargis "deserves this recognition," said Rodney Swinson, with the Patriot Guard Riders. "This is his day."
The airport tribute climaxed weeks of social media outreach. The Patriot Guard Riders is a national group honoring fallen and injured U.S. military. The group first organized in Kansas to shield the families of fallen soldiers from religious protestors.
Riders and other volunteers from across Florida arrived over the weekend to recognize Hargis, an Army Ranger who last October in Afghanistan lost his legs, four friends, and his unit's dog to explosive devices. Others in his unit were also injured. It was Josh Hargis's fourth combat tour. The Ohio native will spend another year in rehab.
"This is amazing," said Scott Griffith, Josh Hargis's father-in-law. "The greatest people have stepped forward. It helps (America) to not forget."
Others with affiliated veteran groups paid tribute to Hargis and his wife Taylor, who is expecting the couple's first child in May.
"We are here to admire the dedication of our soldiers," said Jim Cunningham, whose son James died in1990 serving with the U.S. Marine Corps. Cunningham is with the American Gold Star Mothers, a WWI-era group representing parents whose children have died in the line of duty.
Joan Colosimo organized the Sunday tribute, using Facebook postings and other social media.
"My job is to send out the word" to volunteers, said Colosimo, a senior ride captain with the Patriot Guard Riders. "And you just never know who's going to show. These are very special people paying tribute to the men and women serving our country."
The Patriot Guard Riders initially formed in 2005 to counter so-called religious protests at military funerals. The first event was in Oklahoma, where hundreds of motorcyclists and their supporters drown out protestors by revving motorcycle engines, said Leonard Leary, a Port Charlotte member estimating he has attended 800 military tributes like the one honoring Josh Hargis at Page Field Airport.
"These men and women deserve our honor, respect and thanks," said Leary, a U.S. Navy veteran wearing the tag name "Taz" on his leather vest. "These are our heroes."
The National Coalition for Patriots is raising funds for a vehicle to accommodate Hargis's injuries.
Anyone wishing to contribute may contact www.nationalcfp.org