Riders Gather for Rolling Thunder Tribute to Veterans
By K.L. Vantran
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 29, 2005 The early morning sun glistened off the Vietnam veteran pins on Paul Sirks' blue denim jacket as he waited for the Metro at the New Carrollton, Md., station this morning.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers (front), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Mary Jo, head toward the Pentagon to join thousands of military veterans taking part in Rolling Thunder 2005. The annual motorcycle rally pays tribute to the nation's fallen and missing servicemembers. Photo by Tech. Sgt. D. Miles Cullen, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The 20-year Army veteran, who served in Vietnam during 1965, 1966 and "a little bit of '67," and his friend Diana Plummer, who also sported a blue denim jacket with Vietnam pins and American flags, were on their way to support those riding in the "Rolling Thunder" tribute in Washington.
Sirks and Plummer are members of the Harley Owners Group Chapter in Annapolis, Md. Originally from Ohio, this is the third year Sirks and Plummer have participated in Rolling Thunder, which pays tribute to those killed in Vietnam and remembers those missing from all conflicts. They said they participated in last year's Rolling Thunder but opted to watch from the sidelines this year. Their chapter will have about 400 riding from the Pentagon across the Memorial Bridge to the National Mall's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
"It feels good to be part of the ride," said Sirks, who voluntarily enlisted in the Army. "There's nothing like it. But, you don't get to see all the bikes."
Plummer said she sees the changes in her friend's face as the day progresses.
"He's lucky to be here," she said, referring to wounds that earned Sirks three Purple Heart medals.
Sirks' eyes teared as he talked about the friendships that combat creates.
"Some came back; some didn't. I'll see them today," he said as he wiped his eyes.
The Army veteran said patriotism is important and that the big story with Rolling Thunder is the people who travel across the country to participate. Each year since the rally was first held in 1988, the number of riders has grown. Last year, an estimated 400,000 motorcycles made the ride.
In preparation for his part in Rolling Thunder, Vietnam veteran Richard "Poncho" Pontious took his motor home from Las Vegas to Ohio and got a "couple of days rest" before heading to Ontario, Calif., to join up with a group that was riding from there. They started their journey May 18 and rode anywhere from 127 to 400 miles a day to reach the rallying point in the Pentagon's North Parking lot.
On days they didn't rack up the mileage, the bikers stopped at schools and told their stories to children. One such stop was in West Virginia. The children, said Pontious, had held events to raise money to pay for the bikers' lunches. "They put on a show (for us)," he added. "It was outstanding. I can't wait to do it again next year."
This year's ride took on a special significance for Pontious. Fellow rider and Vietnam veteran Tom "Ghost" Titus lost his son, Army Spc. Brandon T. Titus of the 10th Mountain Division, last August during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
This ride, said Pontious, was in memory of Brandon. "It's important to not let anyone forget all the men and women who give their lives for the freedoms in this country," added the Purple Heart recipient. "A lot of people paid the maximum and shouldn't be forgotten. There are people who will never know the cost.
"They just don't know," he said as talked about sharing a bunker with someone one minute and having that person gone the next. "We need to work our way to a war-free world," he added as he wiped tears from his eyes.
Although they're not veterans, Barb and Rich Smerkar of Greensburg, Pa., said they strongly support the efforts of Rolling Thunder and that's why they ride.
Barb said they normally don't take their bikes out when it's raining, but they braved a downpour at their home May 27 to get here on time to ride from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "It's just that important to us," she added.
"It's important to support the veterans and those serving today and appreciate what they do for us," said Rich. "We take a lot for granted."
"If not for them," added Barb, "we wouldn't be sitting here today."