NEW JERSEY to WASHINGTON, D.C., May 23-27–For the past 26 Memorial Day weekends, tens of thousands of motorcyclists have converged on our nation’s capital. As a member of Rolling Thunder Chapter 2 New Jersey, this is the fourth time I’ve participated in Rolling Thunder’s annual demonstration to compel the politicians to focus more on our POW/MIA issue. I look at things from the tail gunner’s perspective as I go through the five-day weekend with my chapter.
On Thursday, May 23, the first wave of our chapter staged at the Clara Barton rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, just north of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. After our safety briefing, we headed down to Rolling Thunder base station at the Hyatt Regency in Arlington, Virginia. After check-in, we met to head over to our favorite sports bar for dinner.
Friday was very chilly and windy, and we spent most of the day at the Hyatt, giving me the opportunity to speak with the hierarchy of Rolling Thunder Inc. Sitting down in the lobby with some of my fellow chapter members was Gary Scheffmeyer, president of Rolling Thunder National. I asked him for his thoughts on this year’s event, and he responded, “It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s the 15th, 25th, 30th year or whatever; it’s all the same. It’s for the cause—the veterans and the POW/MIA issue. All these people are going to be in Washington, D.C., this weekend, and a lot of them don’t have any idea about the Americans that are missing. We need to bring awareness to the citizens of this country about how our veterans are not being treated properly. They are discharged from the military and it takes three years sometimes before they get their VA benefits. The veterans contact us and we try to help them as best as we can, but we’re a small group compared to some of these large organizations that have millions, and these groups send veterans to us. There are 8,000 Americans missing from Korea, 77,000 missing Americans from World War II, about 1,700 missing Americans from Vietnam and now Bowe Bergdahl is missing in Afghanistan. I truly believe that this government knows where he is because of things I’ve been told, and they just don’t want to go in and get him because they’re afraid of what will happen. They went in and got Osama Bin Laden, so why can’t they go in and get Bowe Bergdahl? He deserves to come home.”
Sitting nearby was Joe Bean, Rolling Thunder Inc. National vice president. He said, “Like any other year we want to see accountability for all of our vets and we need to bring them home as soon we can. Bowe Bergdahl should have been brought home four years ago. They just keep blowing it off. I believe there are still some POWs living in Vietnam and Korea, and I think it would be a very bad, embarrassing moment for our government if we do bring them home. We have to keep supporting our POWs and help veterans get what they need and deserve from the Veterans Administration system.”
Rolling Thunder Inc. Executive Director Artie Muller declared, “It isn’t about any one of us, but about all of those who were left behind in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. We’ve recovered the remains from the first Gulf War; we recovered Jessica Lynch and six other POWs at the beginning of the war. That wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for legislation that Rolling Thunder Inc. and all of the membership and supporters got passed because of all of their participation down here on Memorial Day weekend, as well as the things we do across the country all year.
“We work on a lot of different things—the POW issue, veterans and our troops that need help. It’s strange that the U.S. government will send everybody to foreign countries to fight their dirty wars, but when the troops come home they’re mangled, they have PTSD, brain injuries from these explosives that they’re putting in the ground and it takes them forever to get their benefits. U.S. government statistics show there are 22 veterans a day committing suicide, and there have been many other attempts. It’s disheartening when we get calls from veterans and our troops that came back and find they need serious help financially and there’s nobody there to help them.”
Around 5:30 that evening, we mounted up for a ride to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. While there, we stopped at the Three Servicemen Statue and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial where flowers were laid. We moved on to the World War II Memorial where we laid our chapter’s wreath in honor of the greatest generation. We stopped by the World War I Memorial on our way to the Korean War Memorial. Every year we try to pack in as much as we can before Sunday, when our Pentagon parking lot duties await us.
At the end of our walking tour we went to the Candlelight Vigil to honor those who gave their lives and the POW/MIAs. A procession of Gold Star Mothers traveled along the Vietnam Wall. People lined the route with lit glow sticks. The Flame of Freedom (www.flameoffreedom.com) was carried by Joe Bean. At the center of the Wall, the processional stopped for prayer and then continued along the length of the Wall until they reached the Nurses Memorial Statue and passed the torch around the statue to each Gold Star Mother present and back to Joe. Another prayer ended the touching ceremony.
Saturday started off with the annual barbecue at Harley-Davidson of Washington, D.C., in Fort Washington, Maryland. Nancy Regg, media chairperson for Rolling Thunder National, stated, “All proceeds from the sale of the patches, pins and RTXXVI T-shirts go to Rolling Thunder Inc. The fantastic band playing was Second Wind, who was sponsored by the Hard Rock Cafe, Washington, D.C. Artie said a few words about the demonstration on Sunday and our veterans. Food vendors were plentiful, as were clothing and motorcycle vendors. Everyone seemed to have a great time shopping, eating and seeing old friends. Harley has continued to help us every year, not just with sales but supporting us in the POW/MIA issue, as well. The employees are always courteous and helpful.”
We rode to Thunder Alley, an open-air market of all-things motorcycle—patches, pins and lots and lots of leather. Then at 7:00 p.m. we met at the front of the hotel for a briefing by our chapter president, Lou Amoriello, who informed us on how to get the many thousands of bikes parked safely in their respective slots at the Pentagon lot before the next day’s demonstration.
When the briefing was over, I had the honor of interviewing RTNJ2’s resident Gold Star family, Pat and Amy Moore, the parents of fallen hero Army SPC Benjamin Moore. Benjamin, 23, died on January 12, 2011, while serving in Afghanistan. I asked Pat and Amy, “Why do you spend the time that you do with Rolling Thunder, and why are you so dedicated to the cause?” Pat responded, “When my son was killed in Afghanistan, Rolling Thunder Inc. members were my go-to people for sanity. It was an insane time when people were coming at us from all directions. And when I met so many of the members, I was able to gather that they understood; they knew what was going on and how I felt. There weren’t many words that had to be said; it was a comfort zone; a place where I could go that was a barrier between the new normal and the old. As I talked to these people at all these different functions I realized that it was something I wanted to do. It’s something that is driving me to help others; to give back. Instead of worrying about myself, I can help another veteran; help another veteran’s family. I think Rolling Thunder is a great cause, and I think people need to be educated about what we do. I thought it was just a group that rode to Washington each year just to rally and party. Now that I know it’s about educating people about MIA and POWs, I like to be a part of this.”
Amy added, “To me, Rolling Thunder Inc. is composed of veterans from many wars, many ages, many races and many different branches of the service. You guys were there; you guys served and did time. My husband and I weren’t in the military but Benjamin was one of you guys. He volunteered to be there just like all you guys volunteered to be there. So to me, being with Rolling Thunder is like being with one of Ben’s brothers. And it’s comforting to me to be able to feel the friendship that Ben had with his battle buddies. We won’t have any new memories with Benjamin; we only have the memories that we have, so we can make new memories and that’s with all of you; all the veterans from all the wars and all the men and women who belong to Rolling Thunder Inc. that are putting out their hand and raising money—humbly—and giving back to the people who need it and fought for our lives and our freedom. And we greatly, greatly appreciate it.”
The banquet at the Hyatt on Saturday night was attended by several wounded warriors, numerous dignitaries and supporters of the cause. Featured guests included former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Bowman Myers. Also in attendance was actor Robert Patrick. The annual banquet reinforces all Rolling Thunder members’ focus on our mission, which isn’t about us at all. It’s about bringing all our POW/MIAs back with a big “Welcome Home!” and to help veterans in need because the one percent of Americans who serve to protect the 99 percent who go about their daily lives need to be protected when they come home. We are veterans and non-veterans who go about the task of taking care of our own, and 97 percent of all donations go to that cause.
At 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, our chapter staged behind the hotel for the ride to the Pentagon to park a few bikes. Many thousands of bikes, actually. RTNJ2 Member Diana Kinder-Conklin offered her take on this year’s demonstration: “This is my fourth National Ride for Freedom, and it is such a great experience both in front of and behind the fence. I’ve watched it twice from behind the fence, and this was my second time riding in front of it. I can honestly say that once I turn that corner on my bike and see SSgt. Tim Chambers’ salute and the uniform, it brings a lump in my throat, tears to my eyes and pride in my heart for being part of such a great symbol of patriotism and recognition of our veterans.”
The annual ceremony was held between the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool in D.C. Emcees were Michael DePaulo and Chris Noel from Rolling Thunder Color Guard, and the presentation included Rolling Thunder National and RTVA3, the Pledge of Allegiance led by LTC Andras Martan of Rolling Thunder National and the national anthem sung by Hannah Fax from our own RTNJ2. Invocation and benediction were given by Chaplain Tom Ransdell of RTIN1, and music was performed by Gordon Painter, Loch Rannoch Pipes & Drums Band, J.D. Micals and Rockie Lynne. The Rolling Thunder mission statement was given by Mike Cobb, Rolling Thunder National Chairman of the Board, and Sgt. Artie Muller gave the welcome. Speakers included Gary Scheffmeyer, president of Rolling Thunder National/Rolling Thunder Charities Inc., Lynn O’Shea from the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen, LTC, Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran Andras Marton, New Jersey Congressman Jon Runyon, Wisconsin Congressman Reid Ribble and veterans’ advocate Nikki Mendicino.
As is our chapter’s custom, we wrapped up the last day by going to dinner as a group. This year we went to Ted’s Montana Grill, and the meals were delicious. When we asked for the check, the hostess informed us that an anonymous person had given the restaurant $3,000 to buy veterans their meals. She said, “No charge!” Needless to say, we left an excellent tip. Thank you to the person who so graciously gave to the veterans.
In keeping with the mission of Rolling Thunder Inc., we’ll continue doing what we do for our veterans, past, present and future, until we meet again for Rolling Thunder XXVII.