This year for Memorial Day weekend, riders from all over the world arrived in the D.C. metro area as they have for the past 29 years to protest the government’s lack of accountability for combatants from all wars, with a historic focus on Vietnam, and the members of our military who are still not accounted for and labeled as Missing in Action.
In 2016 the ride was a melding of causes, however, the original concept was not lost. As stated on a Rolling Thunder website, “The Rolling Thunder Run mission is to educate, facilitate, and never forget by means of a demonstration for service members that were abandoned after the Vietnam War. Rolling Thunder has also evolved into a display of patriotism and respect for all who defend our country.”
That first ride in 1987 with about 2,500 riders has grown to over 90 chapters nationwide supporting an estimated 900,000 riders for the annual Ride to the Wall. I’m told that first group felt that the rumble of their bikes sounded like the distance sounds of bombing from Operation Rolling Thunder, and so the Rolling Thunder ride was born. The last year for which I could find numbers showed that in 2014, 850,000 riders joined together for this one-day ride.
Today as the Vietnam vets dwindle in numbers the ride and its goals are increasing defined by the post-9/11 generation. Artie Muller, the executive director of Rolling Thunder, shared, “It’s going to be interesting to see what we can really bring to the organization in the next five to 10 years.” Muller, who is a Vietnam veteran of the 4th Infantry Division, said, “Never forget all of our prisoners of war and those still missing in action from all wars, and never forget our veterans of all wars. That’s our message, and that’s our mission.”
This year, Saturday’s weather was perfect and there were parties from Rockville to Quantico and all around the area. Customer Appreciation Day at Quantico (formerly East Coast Harley-Davidson) featured the James Handy Band, and Patriot Harley-Davidson held events Friday and Saturday as well as serving as a staging point for thousands of bikes Sunday morning. Battley Harley-Davidson in Rockville, Maryland, kicks off the weekend with a night ride downtown to see the monuments and enjoy the beauty of DC at night.
Harley-Davidson of Washington has been the main gathering place for motorcyclists and events began Friday evening with a ride to the Candlelight Vigil at the Vietnam Memorial. Saturday they did it all with vendors, lime green T-shirts, and free food as well as food and drink trucks. Folks could also enjoy live music from bands like the American Bombshells and Rockie Lynne. Addressing the crowd were speakers such as retired Navy CMD Kirk Lippold, the skipper of the USS Cole. Lippold was serving on October 12, 2000, when one of the first acts of Al-Qaeda was to blow a hole in his ship and 17 sailors died. He spoke of his crew and how they saved the ship, and of American patriotism. Artie Muller was there, as well as the famous Saluting SSG. Tim Chambers, who chose this weekend to marry his beautiful bride Lorraine Heist.
Sunday morning the sun was warm and the sky was rich blue with streaming white clouds. At zero dark thirty, some riders in ones and twos headed directly to the Pentagon, with others assembling at staging points including Harley-Davidson dealerships in Rockville, Ft. Washington, Manassas, and Fairfax, and other points throughout Maryland and Virginia. These staging areas were where the ride for many truly began. Most of the rides enjoyed a police escort with police providing rolling road blocks at ramps and intersections so bikers rolled right through on their way to the Pentagon parking lots and the official ride kick-off. I’m told that since 9/11 this is the only event that the Pentagon allows to use the parking lot.
Staging in the Pentagon lot begins early Sunday morning. The ride “starts” at noon. If you arrived at the Pentagon at, say, 8:00 a.m. you might leave close to noon, and if you don’t get there until 11:00 a.m. it might be 3:00 p.m. before you ride out of the lot. The ride is so big now that it overflows from the north to the south parking lot. There is always a wait, with a long staging time. I’ve experienced days so hot you couldn’t drink enough water and cold days where we cooked hot cocoa on a camping burner by the bike. I’ve waited in rain—the sort of weather to remind one of another place and time. At times I’ve slept under the bike in its narrow shadow. Reminds me of the saying, “It’s all good time.”
Don’t get me wrong; the parking lot is alive with thousands of people to meet, vendors with flags, food, and of course the Harley-Davidson event pin. Everyone is taking pictures.
For anyone who has done the ride, waiting in a hot shadeless parking lot, or bone-chilling rain, will confirm that time can seem to stop. Enjoyment advice for the waiting time: Walk across the lot over to the Lady Bird National Park where there are trees and cool settings. Once there you can walk through the park to the Pentagon Marina and there they have a great snack shack with a shaded patio and even air conditioning inside.
Every time I’m in the parking lot at noon it takes my breath away when hundreds of thousands of bikes fire up their motors and inside the natural bowl of the Pentagon parking lot the rumble of bikes becomes thunder that you can feel in your bones.
The ride begins in the midst of a sea of bikes, riders, spectators and countless cameras, with passengers on the back of bikes filming, and GoPro cameras mounted on fairings, crash bars and helmets. Spectators and news crews cheer riders on across the Arlington Memorial Bridge, around the Lincoln Memorial, at the corner on Constitution where Sgt. Chambers stands in vigilant salute, and up Constitution to the Capitol.
At times the ride is so festive it is hard to remember that it is a ride to protest, but the purpose is clear as the bikes turn from Constitution onto First Street and roll past Capitol Hill. Throttles open and roar as the riders give their protest. In basic training we were all promised we would never be left behind, and that our country would support us and never forget us. So one Sunday each year, for several hours, D.C., our seat of government, hears our protest and displeasure that our government has failed to follow through on its promise to our veterans. That’s a promise that for 29 years now, current and former service personnel as well as citizens have been reminding our government they still owe— this unfulfilled debt to this nation’s veterans.