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Rolling Thunder Rumbles Into Nation’s Capital

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2008 – A chain of about 750,000 motorcycles ridden by Vietnam veterans and military supporters blazed through the nation’s capital today as part of the 21st annual Rolling Thunder rally.

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Motorcycle riders cruise through Washington, D.C., during the 21st Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom, May 25, 2008. The bikers ride to raise awareness about prisoners of war, troops missing in action and veterans' benefits. Defense Dept. photo by John J. Kruzel

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In addition to offering vets a chance to reconnect with their brothers-in-arms and honor fallen comrades, the ride aims to raise awareness about issues concerning prisoners of war, troops missing in action and veterans’ benefits.

President Bush this afternoon arranged for Rolling Thunder founder Artie Muller to be delivered by helicopter to the White House, where the two discussed topics at the heart of Muller’s nonprofit group.

“I am just so honored to welcome you back,” Bush told Muller at a news conference on the White House’s South Lawn after their meeting. “I want to thank you and all your comrades for being so patriotic and loving our country as much as you do.

“Our troops appreciate you, the veterans appreciate you and your president appreciates you,” added Bush, calling it a pleasure of his presidency to get to know the leaders of the motorcycle rally.

The parade circuit whizzed riders past national landmarks such as the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall, the U.S. Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial, where group organizers held a ceremony as riders continued to speed past along nearby Constitution Avenue.

Addressing the crowd gathered at the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial just beyond the sun-drenched reflecting pool, Muller said he urged the president to help advance legislation that will bolster the Rolling Thunder effort.

“And I just want to say, ‘Thank you very much,’ because you are America, you are the true patriots of this country, you come here year after year, put up with the rain the heat,” he told the crowd. “And you stuck by [the group’s mission], and we’re getting something done.”

Afterward, veterans activist and actor John Amos, star of television series “Men in Trees” and former co-star of the program “Good Times,” spoke to the audience.

“I’m here for the same reason you are all here,” said Amos, a former member of the New Jersey National Guard and an honorary Master Chief Petty Officer of the U.S. Coast Guard. “I’m here for my brothers who still wear the uniform. I’m here for my sisters. I’m here for my surrogate moms who lost their sons.

“I’m here to be one of many voices that speak up for all those who will not come home,” he continued. “And I’m here to keep the spirit alive that Rolling Thunder has infused in me, and in all of us who believe in what Rolling Thunder is doing.”

Meanwhile, servicemembers past and present, plus family members and other spectators cheered riders on as the convoy roared from the Pentagon parking lot to the National Mall here ahead of tomorrow’s Memorial Day observance.

Former Army Spc. James Yorke, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said he rode here from Richmond, Va., to participate in his fourth Rolling Thunder ride as a way to connect troops with the civilians they serve.

“Americans should think about the people who gave it all,” Yorke said, referring to those fallen military members who he said should be remembered over Memorial Day. “They were asked to do a job just so we could live in this country -- that’s all they were asked to do.”

Also on hand for the holiday were brothers Gary and Jeffrey Elker, who rode their hogs more than 200 miles here from Middlesex, N.J. Gary is a retired Marine corporal who enlisted after the Vietnam War. Jeffrey didn’t wear the uniform, but he said he has buddies whose names are listed on the memorial wall among the more than 58,000 killed in Vietnam.

“It’s a weekend away to honor our fallen veterans,” said Jeffrey Elker when asked to describe the meaning Rolling Thunder holds for him.

Gary Elder, on his 17th ride today, said he also makes the annual trek to show support for military veterans. He added that there’s a common thread between past and present servicemembers.

“They’re willing to sacrifice for everybody else,” he said. “They believe in honor, integrity, and what’s going on in this country, and they’re willing to fight for it; I was.”

George Leiter, a former Marine sergeant who served from 1972-76, motored from Manchester, Pa., for his fourth ride. Over this Memorial Day weekend, as both of his sons wear the Army uniform, Leiter said he hopes his fellow citizens remember the people who answered the nation’s call.

“It’s important for Americans to consider all the veterans, whichever war they were in, whether they were in a combat zone or not,” he said. “I think they’ve just got to think of their freedoms, and what they have, and how important it is to have a strong military, and to support your military.”

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Photo Essay: Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom

Click photo for screen-resolution imageVeterans' activist and acclaimed actor John Amos, star of television series "Men in Trees" and former co-star of the classic sitcom "Good Times," addresses an audience gathered the 21st Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom, May 25, 2008, in Washington, D.C. Amos is a former member of the New Jersey National Guard and honorary Master Chief of the U.S. Coast Guard.  
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