Andrew Downard's father, Benjamin Scott, who served in the 82nd Airborne before Desert Storm, died suddenly in 2009. In March 2010 the family's house was destroyed when it was struck by lightning and erupted into flames. Ben's military medals and flag presented to the family at the funeral were lost in the blaze.
"I had the idea to replace his dad's things because it's been almost a year since the fire," said Angela Chesnut, Downard's mother. "I wasn't getting anywhere with the veteran's association, so I called the Patriot Guard since they did such a wonderful job with the funeral." Downard's birthday is Feb. 5, and everyone involved worked diligently to make the event a surprise.
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders held U.S. flags in two separate lines outstretched from the pavilion entrance to elaborate the special occasion and add to Downard's increasing curiosity.
"It means so much for the patriot guard to do what they're doing," said Chesnut. "They escorted the hearse up to the cemetery where he's buried and Andrew got to ride on a motorcycle right behind his dad."
Along with the medals and flag, which was re-folded over his father's grave, the Downards were presented with a flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Congressman Phil Gingrey asked for this particular flag to be raised and Deputy District Director John O'Keefe from Gingrey's office stated that "usually a request is on backlog for four to six weeks. We got the e-mail last Thursday and the flag was flown above the Capitol Feb. 3."
A Patriot Guard Challenge Coin also was given to Downard by Kem McNeese, who told him that his challenge is "to be the son your dad asked you to be." Compiled into a special book were condolences to the family that was included in the presentation.
"I'm speechless," said Downard. "I was not expecting this at all and it means a lot. I'm very appreciative."
Jan Johnson, Northern Georgia Assistant State Captain for the Patriot Guard Riders, could understand the sentiments and gratitude corresponding with the moment. "I lost my son Justin in Iraq in 2004," said Johnson. "The intersection of Highways 53 and 140 in Floyd County is named in honor of Justin."
Johnson said that in the process of naming the intersection, then state representative, now state senator, Barry Loudermilk, suggested the involvement of the Patriot Guard. "I didn't know very much about the Guard at the time," said Johnson. "We had 147 riders out there that morning and I started missions with them in 2006, working my way through the organization."
Although the main event of the day was in celebration of Downard's birthday, Johnson had another surprise to bestow upon one of the riders. McNeese was presented with the honor of becoming the new Ride Captain for the Guard. "It's an honor and I'm very appreciative," said a shocked McNeese.
"I want people to understand that the Patriot Guard does so much more than just stand by a casket," said Chesnut. "They support the surviving families and obviously go above and beyond what they have to. They've suffered losses too and it's been a long road for many of them. You can never pay back the honor and the gift these people have done; you can just pay it forward."