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Rolling Thunder XXVII: Riding to remember

By Frank Bartolomey

Washington, D.C., May 29–June 1—The Rolling Thunder demonstration on Memorial Day weekend is a pilgrimage of sorts, where the people demand that our politicians act now to take care of the veterans who protected, and continue to protect, America’s freedom.

The morning of the first day of my pilgrimage was the first time I have ever put on rain gear while I was still dry. I set out while the skies were already pouring torrential rains. Thunder and lightning accompanied me for about the 90 minutes till I got to our staging area at the Clara Barton rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike where we met up with our Rolling Thunder chapter. Once there the rains stopped and we risked taking our rain gear off for our ride to our nation’s capital.

Rolling Thunder, Inc. co-founder Artie Miller delivers a passionate M.I.A. issues at the Washington Monument reflecting pool

Rolling Thunder, Inc. co-founder Artie Miller delivers a passionate M.I.A. issues at the Washington Monument reflecting pool

We arrived at the Rolling Thunder headquarters, the Hyatt in Crystal City, Virginia, around 2:00 p.m. After a long nap, four of us went out to our favorite sports bar, the Crystal City Sports Pub, for chow. During that time I asked Rolling Thunder member Charlie Webster, sitting across from me, why he hooked up with Rolling Thunder. He said, “I’ve known about Rolling Thunder and its mission to bring attention to the POW/MIA issue since very early in its history. The group has its roots in central New Jersey, and growing up in Trenton provided me with local news about what was happening with Rolling Thunder and I wanted to be a part of that all-important issue. But misunderstanding the motorcycle part of the organization and a growing family kept my attention diverted away from joining. I was always keeping up with the newsletters from the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia and the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen. My father, a 35-year Army veteran and former Trenton police officer, was connected to an MIA, First Lieutenant Harold Kroske, whose bracelet I still wear today, because his uncle worked at the Trenton Police Department, and growing up I knew of other family friends who lost someone in Vietnam so it was all very close to home for me.

“As a Cold War veteran I believe in the credo of “No One Left Behind” and when I eventually became a journalist and wrote about Trenton-area POWs and MIAs to help bring about awareness for the government’s failure to these men, I had the honor of meeting Artie Muller as I researched and interviewed veterans for a series I was writing for The Trentonian newspaper that focused on MIAs from World War II to Vietnam. After the interview, Artie Muller extended an invitation to attend the next meeting of Rolling Thunder National and to join the organization. Unfortunately, I did not immediately take him up on the offer with a young son and divorce dominating my life. A few years passed and in 2012 I finally felt I had the time to devote to such a worthy organization, and I found a home in Rolling Thunder Chapter 2 New Jersey.”

RTNJ2 places a wreath at the Korean War Memorial

RTNJ2 places a wreath at the Korean War Memorial

Friday started outside the hotel lobby with Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 Mississippi President John McKendree, who is the designated carrier of Rolling Thunder’s “Flame of Freedom.” John explained, “The Flame of Freedom is a symbol of light from home. When a child comes into the world, they know they have the comfort of home, the warmth, the love. And this Flame represents that. When this child grows up and goes into the military, they know that when they leave the comfort of home going into harm’s way, that this light will always be burning to bring them back. And it represents the light from home to bring all POWs and MIAs back to their home. There are a lot of people who can’t come to Washington to visit The Wall, so this Flame goes to small-town America through Rolling Thunder and represents those people in small town; their hurts and pains are the same as in big towns. They can see that Veterans are very important to Rolling Thunder as well as the POW/MIA issue, and they can express their feelings.”

Down the road from the Hyatt where we stayed is the Hilton where the Nam Knights of America stay. I decided to walk over there to see what they were all about. The front of their hotel was crowded with bikes and Nam Knights members. I asked Fred “Fritz” Reiman, from the parent chapter out of Bergen County, New Jersey, why the Nam Knights do Rolling Thunder’s Freedom Ride every year. He said, “We’re here at Rolling Thunder every year for our brothers that are not with us and cannot ride, so we ride for them, come down and pay the honor and respect. It’s something that’s been entrenched in us for years. I remember when the Viet Nam Vets MC used to run Rolling Thunder, and then Artie Muller, a very good friend of mine, got us involved in coming down and it’s been like that for 25 years now.

The Three Soldiers statue is littered with bouquets and flags during Rolling Thunder XXVII

The Three Soldiers statue is littered with bouquets and flags during Rolling Thunder XXVII

“Before I came into the Nam Knights, I belonged to another organization that Artie was involved in with us; he got us coming down to see the monument being built, the Three Soldiers Statue being built, the Nurses Memorial and it’s been like that ever since. And now this organization does the same thing. It’s the camaraderie of the club that we had when we were in the service that keeps us together; it’s a great group of guys. We have 58 chapters across the country right now and we just broke over a thousand members this year. We have our 25th anniversary coming up next month and will have a big function for that. We are just happy we can do what we do to honor our servicemen and women and welcome them home. They’re probably going through worse than what we went through when we were in the service. Our motto is we make money, have fun and give it away to support our troops.”

At 4:00 p.m., several Rolling Thunder chapters mounted up for a ride to the National Cathedral where we were invited for a Rolling Thunder bike blessing. When we arrived we were given a tour of the cathedral and at about 6:00 the blessing began. Since my guardian bell had been lost some time ago, I thought that holy water spritzed on our rides was an excellent replacement.

Rolling Thunder Wreath Ceremony

Rolling Thunder Wreath Ceremony

The Very Rev. Gary Hall, Cathedral Dean, welcomed us for the Friday Blessing of the Bikes. Last year the Cathedral named outreach to veterans as a top priority of its work, and it offers not only a sacred space for spiritual healing, but also a place for educating the civilian public about the challenges veterans and their families face while serving and upon returning home. After every bike was blessed, RTNJ2 rode over to the Vietnam Memorial to lay wreaths at the Three Soldiers Statue and the Korean War Memorial.

After dark the Candlelight Vigil began with Joe Bean, Rolling Thunder National VP, leading a procession of Gold Star Mothers with Rolling Thunder’s Flame of Freedom in his extended hands. The procession wound around the Vietnam Memorial, stopping at the Three Soldiers Statue. As the Flame was passed from mother to mother, each said the name of her fallen daughter or son.

Saturday morning our chapter mounted up for a ride to the Lincoln Memorial to add our ranks to “Bowe’s Army” where we rallied with a bunch of Bowe Bergdahl advocates, urging our government to get our only known live POW back home from the Taliban terrorists’ hands. If Rolling Thunder stands for anything, it is bringing all POWs and MIAs home and taking care of veterans in need. When I wore my uniform during my Vietnam-era days, no one was thanking me for my service. Only since 9/11 have veterans become more appreciated.

The author with Bishop Jay Magness of the Episcopal Office of Armed Services and Federal Ministries during the bike blessing

The author with Bishop Jay Magness of the Episcopal Office of Armed Services and Federal Ministries during the bike blessing

After the rally, we rode over to Harley-Davidson of Washington for their annual Rolling Thunder baebecue. They are great supporters of our organization and believe in our mission; that all POWs/MIAs should be brought home and welcomed. This massive dealership provides the bike we raffle off every year.

Back at the Hyatt, we meet out front for our Pentagon parking lot bike parking briefing. RTNJ2 Chapter President Lou Amoriello handed out stickers and explained how to handle the thousands of bikes that roll into the lot. Each of us was assigned to a certain spot to guide each bike to its respective slot.

At 8:00 p.m. that night our annual banquet began and we feasted on cold-cut sandwiches and various salads. Our founder, Artie Muller, gave his usual fiery message. Afterwards, Commander Kirk Lippold, the former commanding officer of the U.S.S. Cole and a senior military fellow with Military Families United, received a full set of Rolling Thunder patches.

Sunday morning we mounted up for the Pentagon parking lots and assumed our duty stations. It was quite a sight to go from our bikes lined up in the dark with no one else around to the entire lot filled with bikes by about 10:30 a.m. The variety of bikes and people we saw was incredible.

Bowe’s Army on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

Bowe’s Army on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

A couple came by flying a flag with a picture of our country’s only known live POW. I asked why they come to our Freedom Ride and what’s up with the flag. Cheryl replied, “We come here to Rolling Thunder to bring awareness to veterans’ issues. As the mom of a service member, I understand how important it is that our vets not be forgotten. Two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Bob and Jani Bergdahl while they were here with Rolling Thunder and I had already known about the plight of their son Bowe, captured June 30, 2009, in Afghanistan. I have made it a personal mission to make sure to get the word out so that other people know about him, too, because many people don’t. That’s why I fly Bowe’s flag, and I wear my Bowe bracelet that Bowe’s mom gave me. It hasn’t been removed and will not be until he comes home. It’s important that we take care of those who took care of us. Knowledge is power, so the more people we tell, the bigger the story becomes and possibly the more action to make the right thing happen.” Ed added, “As a veteran myself, one of a long line of veterans in my family, it’s very important to get the word out to get our people home and taken care of the way they were promised when they signed up.”

Bike parking duties completed, our chapter relaxed by our bikes and waited for noon, the time when the front of the procession fired up their engines. For the ride to The Wall, not all Rolling Thunder members ride in front of the procession. Rolling Thunder VIPs ride in the very front, then the Viet Nam Vets MC rides right behind them. The Nam Knights are behind them, then the rest of Rolling Thunder’s members ride ahead of the general population. It took quite a while for the bikes in front of us to move out before we followed. It typically takes all day for all the bikes to ride by the Capitol building.

When we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, we proceeded to Rolling Thunder’s stage between the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial. My focus was listening to the beautiful voice of RTNJ2’s Hannah Fox as she sang the national anthem before Artie Muller let the politicians have it regarding our POW/MIA issue.

Things have only gotten worse since last year’s demonstration. Now VA employees get bonuses by doing their best to hide how they are ignoring our veterans’ requests for doctor appointments. They have become so good at it that many veterans have died before they could be seen. Veterans dying, VA employees getting bonuses. Where, pray tell, is the honor in that? Well, Artie’s fiery speech spoke for all of us.

Every patriotic biker needs to attend our Freedom Ride before they die. To find out more about Rolling Thunder and next year’s ride on May 24 and all the activities taking place that Memorial Day weekend, go to www.rollingthunder1.org. I hope to see you at Rolling Thunder XXVIII.

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