Pratt — The Patriot Guard motorcycle group has begun expanding its mission beyond supporting families who have had a soldier die in combat to honoring the soldiers during happier occasions.
On Monday, 28 members of the group interrupted a party celebrating Garrett Marsh's 23rd birthday to thank the Marine for serving three tours of duty in Iraq, including during the invasion of Baghdad.
The Patriot Guard has become known recently for attending funerals to counteract protests from members of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. Members of the church say deaths of American soldiers are God's retribution for the country's acceptance of homosexuality.
But Monday's nights surprise visit to Marsh's parents' home in Pratt was part of a new effort to show appreciation to all soldiers. Many riders were members of American Legion Post No. 86 in Pratt.
Lonnie and Susan Divine of Medicine Lodge rode 34 miles to participate. Their son is serving in Afghanistan and recently received a phone card from Post 86.
The Divines have attended funerals with the Patriot Guard, but Monday night was a happy event.
"There is a lot better feeling here than going to a funeral," Lonnie Divine said. "There is no sadness; we're just giddy."
Marsh, who has earned two Purple Hearts while serving in combat, was surprised but humble about the visit.
"I saw the flags and thought, 'No, not for me,"' said Marsh, who is stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif. "I don't need the recognition."
Marsh was given a Post 86 flag signed by the riders, a letter commending him for his service and a 600-minute phone card.
"This is something that would make his grandfather proud," said Marsh's grandmother, Gloria Marsh. "His grandfather was a member of the American Legion for 58 years."