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Steven Crouch, a Carlsbad resident and Coast Guard veteran, holds up a “22” patch that once represented the number of daily veteran suicides, according to a 2013 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
Steven Crouch, a Carlsbad resident and Coast Guard veteran, holds up a “22” patch that once represented the number of daily veteran suicides, according to a 2013 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
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Local Patriot Guard Riders bring message of duty, respect and hope

REGION — Born from a Kansas group of motorcycle-riding veterans whose roaring engines drowned out Westboro Baptist Church’s attempts to disrupt military funerals, the Southern California Patriot Guard Riders continue the ride to honor their fallen brothers and sisters in North County San Diego and beyond.

The Patriot Guard Riders, which consists of 450,000 veteran and civilian volunteers nationwide, has branches across the United States.

Last year, members of the SoCal Patriot Guard Riders group attended more than 600 funerals of service members and first responders and will likely exceed that number this year, according to Army veteran Lorenzo Lizarraga, a regional ride captain for the SoCal group covering San Diego, Los Angeles, Imperial and Riverside counties.

“We’ve never turned down a mission,” Lizarraga told The Coast News. “No matter what they did, at one time, they stepped up and put on the uniform to defend this country. And that’s what we’re honoring.”

Army veteran Lorenzo Lizarraga speaks to several members of the SoCal Patriot Guard Riders before a "mission" for 1st Sgt. Herbert Olayvar in September at Old Mission San Luis Rey Cemetery in Oceanside. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
Army veteran Lorenzo Lizarraga speaks to several members of the SoCal Patriot Guard Riders before a “mission” for 1st Sgt. Herbert Olayvar in September at Old Mission San Luis Rey Cemetery in Oceanside. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

The Patriot Guard has a code for attending military funerals. First, the group must be invited to participate in a funeral by members of the decedent’s immediate family. No politics.

Every mission is led by a designated ride captain, who interfaces with the family, church, cemetery, mortuary and police, depending on the type of ceremony.

Volunteers do not have to be veterans to join the Patriot Guard. While many do ride motorcycles, it’s not mandatory. The only other requirement is that volunteers must have the desire to honor fallen soldiers.

And in Southern California, the group has been busy.

SoCal Patriot Guard members stand at attention during a funeral service in Oceanside. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
SoCal Patriot Guard members stand at attention during a funeral service in Oceanside. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Lizarraga, 78, said the SoCal group accepts five or six missions per day between Miramar, Fort Rosecrans, Los Angeles and Riverside national cemeteries and everywhere in between.

Personally, Lizarraga attends about four funerals a week, occasionally traveling alone to stand in solidarity with the region’s deceased veterans and first responders. Since joining the Patriot Guard, Lizarraga has completed more than 1,200 missions.

In addition to funerals across the region, the SoCal Patriot Guard Riders, invited by the mortuaries, also honor veterans who died while serving on San Diego military bases. 

The remains of active-duty Marines who passed away while stationed at Camp Pendleton are first sent to Berry Bell & Hall Mortuary in Fallbrook before returning to their hometown or final resting place. The Navy sends its departed service members to Legacy Funeral and Cremation Care in La Mesa. 

“There is something wrong when the majority of mortuaries know me by my first name,” Lizarraga said.

army veteran Lorenzo Lizarraga, right, speaks with an active-duty Marine during a funeral ceremony celebrating the military career and life of 1st Sgt. Herbert Olayvar at Old Mission San Luis Rey Cemetery in Oceanside. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
Army veteran Lorenzo Lizarraga, right, speaks with an active-duty Marine during a funeral ceremony celebrating the military career and life of 1st Sgt. Herbert Olayvar at Old Mission San Luis Rey Cemetery in Oceanside. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
A lifetime of medals and military honors belonging to the highly-decorated 1st Sgt. Herbert Olayvar, who passed away earlier this year. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
A lifetime of medals and military honors belonging to the highly-decorated 1st Sgt. Herbert Olayvar, who passed away earlier this year. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Typically, Lizarraga wakes up around zero-dark-thirty to make the 90-minute drive from his Alpine home to the North County mortuary by 4 a.m. to escort the body back to a nearby international airport. And the former Army cryptographic technician always brings an American flag with him to drape over the shipping container.

“We escort (the deceased) over to the cargo area for a dignified transfer,” Lizarraga said. “Anytime a hero is moving, we present arms with flags. When we get to the loading dock, we unload them, put them on a scale, play taps and present a properly folded flag.”

The group also hosts Vets Without Families every Tuesday at Miramar National Cemetery, providing full military honors for previously interred veterans who may otherwise be lost to time.

A message of hope

In 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported an estimated 22 veterans killed themselves each day. While that number has decreased, the VA reported suicide rates in 2020 were highest among younger veterans ages 18 to 34.

These troubling national statistics motivated Carlsbad veteran Steven Crouch to get involved with the SoCal Patriot Guard Riders. Crouch, a retired Coast Guard serviceman, is now fully disabled and has battled depression for decades.

Carlsbad resident Steven Crouch, a Coast Guard veteran, sits quietly during a funeral ceremony for 1st Sgt. Herbert Olayvar in Oceanside. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
Carlsbad resident Steven Crouch, a Coast Guard veteran, sits quietly during a funeral ceremony for 1st Sgt. Herbert Olayvar in Oceanside. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

“I was diagnosed with chronic depression in 1995,” Crouch said. “A lot of times, I would lie in bed for several days without getting up. But Patriot Guard has given me a purpose. It means something to be here for these families. So these guys who are hopeless and contemplating suicide, come out, join us and get involved with the camaraderie.”

Today, Crouch still rides his Harley Davidson Road Glide on at least three missions per week in the San Diego area. Over hundreds of missions, Crouch has found solace and camaraderie in the group of men, women, veterans and civilians. 

But members worry about the future of the group due to what they perceive as a lack of patriotism.

“We used to have a tremendous turnout in the early days, but it’s getting weaker and weaker,” Lizarraga said. “When I talk about patriotism, right now, it’s the love of country and willingness to defend it. Right now, we have two generations without patriotism in their heart.”

More information about SoCal Patriot Guard Riders is available at socalpgr.org.

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