Group 'Thunders' Through D.C. to Support Vets, Troops
By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 28, 2006 More than 100,000 motorcycles carrying Vietnam veterans, current and former servicemembers, family members, and other supporters rattled the streets here today.
Three Vietnam veterans listen to the speakers at the Rolling Thunder XIX Ride for Freedom at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., May 28. Photo by Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The motorcyclists were participating in the Rolling Thunder XIX Ride for Freedom from the Pentagon parking lot to the National Mall. The ride is held every year by the non-profit group as a demonstration to raise awareness about prisoners of war, troops missing in action, and veterans benefits.
"Everybody should think on Memorial Day weekend about how many Americans have served and given their lives for their country," said Artie Muller, founder and executive director of Rolling Thunder.
The riders today included veterans from all walks of life, as well as active-duty servicemembers and other Americans who wanted to show their support. One of those riders was retired Col. Nyuen Kim Ban, of the Republic of Vietnam armed forces. Ban was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 17 and a half years and is now the president of the Council of Vietnamese American Organizations.
Ban left the South Vietnamese military in 1975 and came to the U.S. in 1993 because the U.S. was his ally and his friend, he said. Ban said that his time among other prisoners of war in Vietnam made him want to do something to raise awareness and honor them. "All of them are our benefactors; I have to do something to support them," Ban said.
Ban has ridden in the Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom every year since 1994. It is important to him to participate, he said, because he feels he owes a debt to the U.S. servicemembers who fought for his country.
"I have to do anything, even sacrifice my life, for them and the U.S. government and the American people to repay my debt," he said. "During (the Vietnam War), they worked so hard to free our country."
Another person riding for her fellow veterans was Nancy M. Christ, 75, who was an Army nurse for 20 years. Christ served a year in Vietnam as an operating room nurse in the 3rd Field Hospital. She first participated in Rolling Thunder in 2005 when her nephew told her about the organization, and she said she was in awe to be surrounded by so many of America's heroes.
"These guys are just America's best and greatest," she said. "I just wish I were available to hug absolutely every veteran. I thank them for their service."
Christ said she plans to participate as long as she is physically able, to ensure veterans are always remembered for their sacrifices.
Another group that was remembered during the ride is the servicemembers who are still prisoners of war or are missing in action. Army Sgt. Matt Maupin went missing in Iraq April 9, 2004, and still has not been found. Maupin's name was on the lips and the clothing of many participants, and his parents rode alongside everyone else.
"A part of me is missing, and I can't fill that void at all," said Carolyn Maupin, Matt's mother. "I get up every day, one day at a time, thinking today might be the day. I do feel Matt is still alive; I just don't want him to think they've forgotten him."
Carolyn said that she and her family do everything they can to raise awareness about Matt and all prisoners of war. If Matt could see the outpouring of support today, she said, he would be in awe, because he is a humble man proud to serve his country.
"He was proud to wear that uniform. When he got his deployment papers, he was anxious to go," she said, choking back tears.
While primarily focused on veterans, Rolling Thunder riders also support active-duty servicemembers, said Gary Scheffmeyer, Rolling Thunder Inc. national president.
"We think the troops are the cat's meow," Scheffmeyer said. "I don't care what your political affiliation is, I don't care whether you're for the war or against the war, you have to support the troops."
Support for the troops is important, because it counters negative press that servicemembers may be hearing while they're overseas, Scheffmeyer said. Vietnam veterans learned firsthand what it was like to have a country that didn't support them, he said, so they are committed to making sure today's servicemembers are honored for their service.
"We want these soldiers to be welcomed home with open arms, and let them know America loves them and America supports them," he said.
Muller organized the first Rolling Thunder ride in 1987. Rolling Thunder became incorporated and became a non-profit organization in 1995, and now has 86 chapters in 28 states, he said.
Muller said he has seen the organization grow considerably each year, and the support reaffirms the organization's cause. "There are a lot of great Americans out there who really care," he said.