Members of the Patriot Guard follow a hearse at a funeral procession on its way to National Cemetery on the Rock Island Arsenal in this file photo. (FILE PHOTO)

The Patriot Guard Riders, often dressed in biker garb, are silent sentinels at the funerals of fallen service members.

Ask about the Westboro Baptist Church's protests outside soldier funerals that prompted the group's creation, and that changes. A listener can get an earful.

"It is free speech, but it is not common sense," said Gary Schrock of Oneida, Ill., the Patriot Guard Riders' Illinois state captain. "I don't care if any Joe Blow in the country wants to come down here and protest.

"I'm a Vietnam vet, and I've been spit on, but if you want to go to protest at a funeral for a guy who fought for the right for you to be there, that (ticks) me off."

Founded in 2005, the all-volunteer Patriot Guard Riders arose from efforts by veterans and bikers in Kansas who wanted to take the focus away from the inflammatory anti-gay protests outside military funerals by activists from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan.

Starting with a few riders at the funeral of an Oklahoma soldier that was expected to draw Westboro protesters, they contacted the local police and family of the fallen soldier asking if they could attend. The riders gathered at the funeral and peacefully defused the intrusion by the Westboro protesters.

Schrock has attended funerals across Illinois that had protesters, most recently in early 2010, although they were nowhere near as frequent as they were at the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Patriot Guard members understand the First Amendment right to free speech, but it doesn't mean they like it.

"How it has been skewed into the garbage we have today, it drives me nuts," said Eric Swanson, a ride captain from Davenport who has been on about 180 rides. "The audacity of standing outside a funeral and holding a sign that says ‘Thank God a soldier's dead,' that is sick. It is beyond sick."

Swanson and Schrock have experienced protesters but say state laws in Iowa and Illinois that put limits on where and when protesters could be outside funerals have helped. In Iowa, protesters must stay 500 feet away, while in Illinois the distance is 200 feet.

At funerals, the Patriot Guard Riders stand silently with 3-foot by 5-foot flags on poles ready to surround protesters. One tactic is for the Patriot Guard to rev their motorcycle engines to drown out protesters, but Schrock is opposed to that.

"We shield them pretty well," he said. "There is often a noise ordinance, so they can't rant and rave like they used to do in the old days."