Rolling Thunder Ride Focuses on POW/MIA Cause
By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 30, 2005 From the outset it appeared to be a simple festive gathering, but it quickly became apparent that a serious cause was the genesis for bringing this group together.
A Vietnam veteran holds a flag near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington May 29. Men and women young and old gathered in the nation's capitol to watch as hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders took part in Rolling Thunder 2005. The annual ride pays tribute to those killed in Vietnam and remembers those missing from all conflicts. Photo by Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans and motorcycle enthusiasts gathered in the Pentagon's North Parking lot early May 29 for the 18th annual Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom.
Rolling Thunder, Inc., is a non-profit organization whose goal is to raise public awareness about the prisoner of war/missing in action issue. The ride is meant to bring attention to the fact that many American servicemembers from past wars are still unaccounted for.
Many of the veterans gathered here firmly believe that there are American prisoners of war alive in Southeast Asia. "Most definitely" is how Ray Gray, of Manchester, Md., responded when asked if he thought Vietnam POWs still survive.
Gray said that he felt the only way for the issue to be resolved is for voters to put pressure on politicians to bring the prisoners home.
Throughout the morning veterans re-acquainted themselves with old buddies. Some were overcome with emotion as they hugged and shook hands.
"When I come to the Pentagon parking lot it fills my heart to see a lot of the other brothers here. Some of them I haven't seen in 30 years," said Vietnam veteran Robert Vanstory, of Abilene, Texas. "I always look forward to bonding and uniting with my brothers. Knowing we still stand together regardless of what happened in Vietnam is important."
Shortly after noon, engines began to roar to life, and the parking lot shook with the sound of Harley Davidson motorcycles and a variety of other bikes. Two by two the motorcycles left the Pentagon and crossed the Memorial Bridge into Washington, D.C.
The procession of bikes zoomed along the spectator-lined Constitution Avenue, where the cheering crowd sometimes drowned out the sound of the engines.
There were a few notable individuals among the riders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, a fervent motorcyclist.
The riders weaved their way past the Capitol building and back down to the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials on the National Mall. Throughout the afternoon the crowd listened to speeches and was entertained by musical acts, such as Paul Revere & The Raiders and Nancy Sinatra, on a stage set up at the foot of Lincoln Memorial.
"Rolling Thunder makes sure the American people are always mindful of Vietnam and those left behind," said Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was also on hand. "To the riders of Rolling Thunder, I thank you so very much, for what you are doing for the veterans and the country --patriots all," Rumsfeld said.
The event has changed somewhat over the years. Rolling Thunder began as a demonstration against the government for not doing more to help POWs. That cause remains as important as ever, but the event has also become a patriotic Memorial Day weekend mainstay.
Rolling Thunder has more than 80 chapters with thousands of members spread across the United States and around the world.
The organization also raises funds to help veterans and promotes legislation that advocates veterans issues.
"We don't do anything for the money, we do it for our brothers. When we raise money from selling patches and T-shirts, it goes to the POW/MIA issue and to help disabled veterans," said Artie Muller, president and co-founder of Rolling Thunder.
One piece of legislation that Rolling Thunder successfully advocated and co-authored was the POW/MIA Memorial Flag Act. The act stipulates that the POW/MIA flag must be displayed at the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Its members also volunteer their time and energy to helping veterans in their local communities, Muller said.
Sinatra has been a steady advocate for the POW/MIA cause over the years. She closed out the event and was enthusiastically applauded when she sang her venerable 1960s classic "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."
As the event came to a close, shouts of, "Bring them home!" could be heard as one last reminder not to forget those left behind.
"Every time we come here it reminds people that we haven't forgotten," said Vietnam veteran Lee Samples, of Starkville, Miss.