Rolling Thunder Rides Again
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 26, May 27, 2002 Their pony tails and beards are now mostly gray. Their faces are worn and grizzled. Yet, the Vietnam veterans who gather here each year on Memorial Day weekend remain determined. They will not let America forget that some of their brothers in arms never came home.
Starting at noon today, motorcyclists from across the country rolled two-by-two out of the Pentagon's north parking lot for more than three hours. They carried the black and white POW/MIA flag alongside Old Glory. Pentagon security officials estimated the lot held more than 100,000 motorcycles.
People line the route across Memorial Bridge as bikers from across the country take part in Rolling Thunder in Washington, D.C. May 26, 2002. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"This is veterans for veterans," said Navy veteran Hugh M. Bremner, of New Jersey. "After 9-11, people are starting to realize the military does mean something and we've got to take care of it. There are a lot more people here this year and there are a lot more than just bikers here."
The bikers were back in town for Rolling Thunder, their 15th annual ride to the Vietnam Wall to remind the nation that American prisoners of war and missing in action remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. The group staged at the Pentagon parking lot. Tens of thousands of spectators lined the route past the Capitol to the Vietnam Memorial.
Art Foss, president of Rolling Thunder, Inc., Virginia Chapter 3, said there were about 74 veterans in his group. "This is patriotism at its best," said Foss who did two tours in Vietnam and then completed a military career.
Rolling Thunder will always be about the POW/MIA issue, he noted. "We want our government to know we want our POWs and MIAs accounted for."
For the people who are in the military right now, he said, the Vietnam vets want to eliminate any fears they may have that if something happens to them, their country is going to bring them back home. "We're not going to forget anybody and that's the way it should be."
The Vietnam vets are now in their 50s and 60s, Foss said. "Who's going to carry the torch when we're gone. That's why we're trying to educate the public and our children, he said. "That's why we go speak in schools. It's not just to elaborate on what we went through as Vietnam veterans. Somebody has to carry forth after we leave."
Rolling Thunder is about the Vietnam POW/MIAs, but it's also about today's military and the families of all who serve, said Foss who works as a bus driver at Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia. He said that even after he retired from the military he wanted to stay within the military family.
"That's what this is," he said indicating the tens of thousands of bikers gathered around him. "It's family. I'm just glad to be a part of it. If I could, I'd go right back in and I'd serve for 30 years this time."
With their headbands, leather chaps and vests, covered with flags, pins, and patches, these men and women riding Harleys and Hondas, look like a throwback to another age, the age of Woodstock and Easy Rider. Their brand of patriotism reflects their lifestyle.
Their message is the same as it's been for the past 25 years. They believe Americans may be alive in Southeast Asia. They want to see them come home. Recent successful escapes out of North Korean by South Korean prisoners of war from the 1950s strengthen their conviction.
So each year, the Vietnam veterans come together in the nation's capital, joined by family members, present and former service members and veterans of other wars. They continue to hope, and they continue to ride in their comrades' honor. For many, their round-trip journey across America covers 6,000 miles.
U.S. Marine 2nd Lt. Jay Mallory, of Rangeley, Maine, came out to ride with the bikers today, as he has twice before. "My uncle is a Vietnam veteran who comes with another Vietnam vet every year. Two years ago, I came for the first time."
Mallory, who's stationed at Quantico, said when Rolling Thunder rides, it's a special day. "I feel like I owe something to the men and women who are not only here, but whose names are on the wall. It's a way to pay my respects."
The active duty Marine got together with a former Marine from Hartstown, Pa., who'd served from 1992 to 1996. "There's a special feeling between veterans," Joe Guthrie II said. "Being motivated as I am, I've got to be around them. If I'm around veterans I'm feeling good."
Theresa David, an American Gold Star Mother from Holbrook, Mass., said her group comes every year because they enjoy riding the motorcycles and they love being with the veterans. American Gold Star Mothers is a non-profit
group whose members have lost a son or daughter in military service.
"I look forward to this every year to be with our boys," said Florence Johnson, of Charlestown, Mass., another Gold Star Mother who served in the Navy during World War II. "I lost my firstborn, Lance Corp. Edward L. Johnson, in Hoi An, Vietnam," she said.
In August, the 79-year-old plans to visit where her son was killed. "I'm hoping to walk where he walked," she said. "Maybe that will be the closure after 35 years. I can't picture him as 56 years of age. I still picture him as 21. They say age stops and it does. But, all these fellows here, they're all my sons now. I may have lost a son, but I've gained thousands of other sons. They'll never take his place, but I still love them all."
King Cavalier, whose father served in Vietnam, said he first rode in Rolling Thunder four years ago. This year, he linked Gold Star Mothers, Blue Star Mothers, whose children have served in the military, and Combat Nurses to symbolically carry a torch cross country. The bikers carried the torch and the mothers and nurses held ceremonies across the country. The women carried the flame to a candlelight vigil at the wall.
Bob Graham, of Scranton, Pa., a Vietnam era Navy veteran, said he was riding to honor the POW/MIAs, but also to honor all service members. He said his son, who just made chief, is in the Navy stationed in Norfolk, Va. He was aboard the USS Cole when terrorists attacked the ship in Yemen. Graham said he wants to make sure the government takes care of its own.
Rolling Thunder, Inc., is a non-profit organization with more than 60 chapters. The organization raises funds to help veterans and serves as legislative advocates on veterans' issues. Members volunteer to visit local veterans hospitals and educate people about the POW/MIA issue.