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Rolling Thunder XX

By Biker Jon Banks

Return to hallowed ground

Riders mark two decades of support for POW/MIA issues

Washington, D.C., May 25–27—Fairfax, Virginia, the place I call home, is a Washington, D.C., suburb, and as such, has the dubious distinction of being impacted not only politically, but also logistically by what happens in our nation’s capital. Memorial Day weekend is one of the times I am glad to live so close. This is the weekend each year when several thousand bikes line up seven abreast to form a line a mile and a half long during staging at Patriot Harley-Davidson in Fairfax, joining others from all across the country for the annual Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom.

The anticipation starts the Thursday prior to the ride, when the increased presence of bikes is seen and heard along our highways. Various establishments display signs welcoming Rolling Thunder visitors to town and some restaurants even have Rolling Thunder specials, which include special culinary concoctions fit for the occasion. There is an air of excitement about town as the bikers roll in and their presence swells our hotels, restaurants and roadways. Friends and neighbors ask me about Rolling Thunder, and it gives me a chance to educate some people about the POW/MIA issue.

Many of the local residents come out on Sunday morning to see the assemblage of motorcycles. The ride from Patriot H-D, called the Ride of the Patriots, heads down U.S. Route 50 onto I-66, which is blocked to automobile traffic during the ride. To those who sometimes feel held hostage by the daily traffic glut on these roads, Rolling Thunder is a chance to extract some miniscule pleasure at being able to savor the true meaning of the word expressway. As the riders parade through the neighborhoods, people stand applauding and waving flags. I rode with a different group this year and didn’t experience the Ride of the Patriots, but in years past the local support has brought me close to tears.

For the Rolling Thunder planners, this weekend is the grand finale of what they have prepared for all year. The opening event is the Friday night vigil, held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, respectfully referred to as The Wall, near the Lincoln Memorial.

A moment to reflect
When our H.O.G. group arrived at The Wall for the opening, there was already plenty of activity in the area. Since I live so close to Washington, I pass The Wall sometimes during the course of my commute. As long as it is in the distance I can look another direction, or focus on the ever-present traffic. However, standing there is something of a test. I headed to panel 53E, line 34, to say hello to my childhood friend Charles “Butch” Johnson, PFC-E2 USMC. On my way a lady stopped me and asked if I was a vet. When I said yes, she and her friend thanked me for my service. Her name was Laura Gamble and she and her friend Bobbie Lanning were from the Michigan Rolling Thunder chapter. The women were the first of many during that weekend who would engage me in conversation and thank me and my sisters and brothers for our service.

For Cindy and Dave Anderson the vigil was particularly significant; Cindy will deploy during the next week to Iraq and they wanted Rolling Thunder to be their last activity together before she goes. Cindy is an Army nurse whose presence in Iraq will be most welcome and necessary.

Many returning veterans embraced friends and brothers whom they had not seen since last year, and went together to touch The Wall. One such group is Operation Carry the Flame. Member Robert S. Delsi said he has come yearly for many years, and this is the first time he could view The Wall without crying. OCTF raises funds for scholarships for Navigating Children’s Grief training courses and also provides support for adults who have lost a relative.

The vigil was a touching remembrance of our nation’s fallen heroes. The ceremony opened with respects paid to the Gold Star Mothers, a support organization for mothers who have lost a son or daughter in the service of our country. Rolling Thunder member and Keeper of the Flame co-founder and chairman King Cavalier II escorted Betty Dean Pulliam, president of the National Gold Star Mothers, Inc. Other Gold Star Mothers and their escorts followed to receive the honors due them.

One definition of a vigil is a peaceful demonstration in support of a particular cause. It is also a period to keep watch. For us, veterans returning to our “hallowed ground,” as King Cavalier so aptly called it, this was a protest of sorts to let America know that these heroes will not be forgotten during our watch; we will continue to pass the torch to future generations so that the memories of their deeds will never be obliterated.

Following the first ceremony at The Wall, we were led to the Nurse’s Memorial for a very moving tribute to the nurses who served in Vietnam. Their heroism saved many lives, and had it not been for their skill and compassion, the number of soldiers’ names listed on The Wall would certainly have been higher.

Invaluable support
The next day, at the reunion spot, Washington H-D, I had the pleasure of shaking hands with Artie Muller, the director of Rolling Thunder, Inc. It was quite an honor to meet such an important man who is also a regular guy. I really thought he would be much too busy to spend time with me, so I started to walk away after shaking his hand. To my surprise, he called me back and we chatted for a few minutes. He has a commanding presence, and yet his demeanor is quite mellow and relaxed considering all the pressure he must have been feeling right in the middle of this event that they plan for all year.

In addition to Mr. Muller, or Artie as he is called, Jim Ziemer, the CEO of Harley-Davidson, Inc. was present. Artie thanked H-D for all the support they have provided throughout the years. He particularly thanked Washington H-D for having supported Rolling Thunder when it was just an idea. “They provided resources and logistical support long before we were able to stand alone. That is why,” said Artie, “Fort Washington H-D will always be our home, our annual reunion spot.” This year, Washington H-D dedicated two bikes to Rolling Thunder.

Ziemer emphasized H-D’s commitment to veterans and their organizations. “We gave over a million dollars last year to veterans’ associations,” he stated.

Saturday night was awards night at the host hotel, the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia. Veterans from Walter Reed Army Hospital were the invited guests for the evening. Seeing those heroes in their wheelchairs made me realize again how important Rolling Thunder is, and how much they have done to somehow try to show appreciation on behalf of a grateful nation. The rest of the country may seem to have forgotten their sacrifices, but in that room they were welcomed with a standing ovation.

All of the Rolling Thunder chapters were present. Awards were presented and Artie addressed the assembly. He related that the concerted efforts of all chapters have helped get important legislation passed, including laws regarding soldiers’ remains. During the 20 years since the founding of Rolling Thunder, over 700 sets of remains have been returned to their native land.

In addition to presenting awards, Rolling Thunder also received some. Representatives of the Navajo nation thanked Rolling Thunder for all of their hard work in helping vets and their families, and presented them with the Navajo national flag. An extremely touching presentation came from a Laotian delegation. They presented Rolling Thunder with plaques and watches, but the best gift they presented was the announcement of some GI remains they discovered and turned over to the U.S. They were allies during the war and still wish to continue that bond.

The big day
When the big day finally arrived, I was exhausted, but excited. We departed the hotel at 0630, which is 6:30 a.m. for you civilians, and any vets who have forgotten. I was honored to actually get to ride with the Rolling Thunder party, which accounts for the early departure time. As in prior years, riders waited in the Pentagon parking lot until noon, when the lead bikes departed. I figured I’d be in for a long day, but I was wrong. The sights and sounds in that holding area made the time fly.

A Rolling Thunder security guard noticed the CPT bars on my vest. “Were you a CPT?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. With that he came to attention, saluted me and said sincerely, “Thanks, for your leadership.” I returned the salute and well, it had to happen, I felt a few tears forming, which I quickly wiped away. It happened several more times that day as brothers welcomed each other home, and thanked each other for service. Vietnam veterans are the only ones who didn’t have welcome home parades, so we welcome each other home.

This was where I saw my favorite bike of the entire weekend, the 173 Airborne Vietnam Tribute Bike. Designed by veteran Robert Harris, the bike is a welcome home to Vietnam vets. Robert is not a bike designer, but when his 1985 Harley-Davidson FXFT turned 20 years old he thought it was time for a remake. The bike is astounding in its aesthetics. For instance, the passenger footpegs are hand grenades, while driver pegs are 30mm rounds. The blinker lights are M-79 grenade shell casings and the highway pegs are bayonets. Saddlebags are ammo tins topped with 81mm mortar rounds. Running down the front frame are .223 caliber rounds and on the front forks, .50 caliber rounds. Like I said, the bike is awesome.

The ride ended with riders back at The Wall. The closing ceremony near the reflecting pool was well attended, and offered some good reason for hope. The audience learned that the military is now using DNA to try to identify remains from all wars. Relatives of missing service members may contact the applicable branch of service for information. Pat Boone sang a song dedicated to the troops in Iraq. He said, “Vietnam vets had the Green Beret song, now, it is time to give the present-day troops a song dedicated to their fight.” Finally, Paul Revere and The Raiders sang a bunch of old favorites that were popular during the Vietnam era. It was uplifting and provided the perfect ending to an already fantastic weekend.

On Sunday night the bikers roll out. It is a letdown of sorts after an emotionally charged weekend that only a veteran and a biker can fully comprehend. Being among so many kindred spirits, opening your heart and baring your soul in ways that only those who share the experience can understand is healthy and necessary not only for us, but for the country and way of life we fought to preserve. God willing, we will travel to the hallowed ground known as The Wall again next year and keep the memories alive even after all the POW/MIAs have returned.

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