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Rolling Thunder XXI Ride for Freedom

By Ray Devlin

The sound of freedom

President Bush joins Rolling Thunder

Washington, DC, May 23–25—How often does the President of the United States get to hang out with a bunch of bikers? Just ask White House staffers who have made it possible for Rolling Thunder to meet with President Bush more than a half-dozen times during his presidency.

The meeting with President Bush was just one of the highlights of the Rolling Thunder demonstration held over Memorial Day Weekend, as it’s been held for the past 20 years. Rolling Thunder XXI attracted an estimated 750,000 people to its annual tribute in support of veterans—past, present and future.

The three-day event started with a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial on Friday night. The memorial actually consists of three separate elements—the Three Soldiers statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Being one of thousands of people standing next to The Wall holding up candles in the dark to honor and remember our troops killed in the Vietnam War is a heart-rending experience most people never forget.

Rolling Thunder co-founder and executive director Artie Muller and national president Gary Scheffmeyer, along with chapter presidents from across the U.S., visited patients in the Washington, D.C. Veterans Administration Hospital on Saturday. They also hosted and honored the families of POW/MIAs, Gold Star families, and wounded veterans from Walter Reed Hospital. Actors John Amos (who is also a veteran and a Harley rider) and Robert Patrick of Terminator 3, along with Nashville recording artist Paulette Carlson, visited wounded veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan and prior wars to show their support for all those who sacrificed for our freedom.

Sunday morning, an estimated 350,000 motorcycles assembled in the Pentagon parking lot staging area for the traditional Rolling Thunder motorcade. Among the hundreds of motorcycle clubs participating were Rolling Thunder National, Vietnam Vets, Nam Knights, Blue Knights, Leathernecks, U.S. Military Vets and American Legion Riders. The Rolling Thunder demonstration left the Pentagon parking lot in Arlington, Virginia, at noon. It took hours for all of the motorcycles to reach the National Mall in Washington. And for all those hours, thousands of pedestrians lined both sides of the streets along the route, cheering and waving flags as the motorcycles roared across Memorial Bridge down Independence Avenue, along Constitution Avenue, and past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. For the seventh year, riders were greeted by a familiar sight—Staff Sergeant Tim Chambers, the lone U.S. marine who stood at attention and saluted every one of the patriots who rode past.

Artie Muller and several other Rolling Thunder members met with President Bush at the White House early Sunday morning. The President also greeted Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and his top economic adviser, Edward Lazear, who all rode Harleys as they accompanied the Rolling Thunder representatives on that morning’s ride to the White House.

President Bush was made an honorary member of Rolling Thunder and presented with a black leather vest with the Rolling Thunder colors sewn on. The President said, “We just choppered in, Artie, and saw your brothers and sisters cranking up their machines and driving through the nation’s capital—many of them have got the flag on the back. And I am just so honored to welcome you back. I want to thank you and all your comrades for being so patriotic and loving our country as much as you do.”

The ceremony at the National Mall, facing the reflecting pool with the Lincoln Memorial in the background, began with a patriotic tribute by country singers Gordon Painter and Paulette Carlson. The musical tribute was followed by the presentation of colors by the color guard of Rolling Thunder National and Rolling Thunder Virginia 3, and the Pledge of Allegiance by Gary Scheffmeyer. The National Anthem was sung by Jane Sutton and Jessie Hansley from Rolling Thunder North Carolina 5. The invocation was delivered by Chaplain Tom Ransdell, Rolling Thunder Indiana 1, and the mission statement was read by Mike Cobb, chairman of the board for Rolling Thunder National.

Muller, also a Vietnam combat vet, said, “I spoke to President Bush about the 28,000 veterans that have been discharged and the government not paying disability benefits for all who have been classified with Immature Personality Disorder. They have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, not IPD. It’s about the veterans, the issues and our country. It’s about those soldiers who are in the hospital and have lost a leg or arm. Somebody has to speak up for them. If we don’t keep the pressure on, we will lose in the long run. I just want to say thank you very much because you sure are America. You are the true patriots of this country. God bless our troops, God bless you and God bless the United States of America.”

The Gold Star Mothers were present, as were the Blue Star Mothers. Master of Ceremonies Michael DePaulo of Rolling Thunder National read a poem called “Gold Star Mothers” by Poet Richard G. Vargus. John Amos, a longtime activist, said, “This is the most important gathering I’ve ever been a part of. All these men and women must be accounted for. We live in the greatest country in the world and a gathering like this confirms that we have more freedom.” Robert Patrick said, “I’m humbled and very proud to be here to pay my respects and to show my gratitude to the men and women of the armed forces.”

The remains of SSgt Keith “Matt” Maupin were returned in late March. His parents Carolyn and Keith Maupin said, “He fought for our freedom until the end. Please remember our freedom isn’t free. May God bless our troops and God bless America.” Other veterans’ families and families of POWs from the Iraq War also spoke, such as Mick Fouty and Hilary Meunier, parents of Pvt. Byron Fouty; and Andy Jimenez and Maria del Rosario Duran, parents of Sgt. Alex Jimenez. Mary Ann Reitano, POW/MIA activist and cousin of Master Sgt. Gregory Harris, USMC MIA as of June 12, 1966 in Vietnam, spoke about how government bureaucracy tie-ups have not helped find the truth about our missing POW/ MIAs. Veterans Advocate Nikki Mendicino spoke about our troops overseas: “They need to know that we are behind them and praying for them and their families and that our government will never leave anyone behind on my watch and never abandon them.” Johnnie Webb, deputy commander of external relations for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a task force that travels the world to find and account for our still-missing POW/ MIAs, spoke about how the search is still ongoing and that he’ll never forget our service members not accounted for.

“You’ve got over 2,000 guys still missing in Vietnam,” said Michael T. Breighner, 60, the national master sergeant-at-arms of Veterans of the Vietnam War. “What this event does is let the government know that we’re not going to give up on the POW/MIA issue until we get as much accountability as possible.”

“If one day, through the grace of God, a POW comes home, I will at least be able to say I fought for you to come home,” said Doc Spresser, an Army combat medic in Vietnam and a member of Rolling Thunder National chapter.

After the ceremony concluded, many visited our memorials—the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the World War II Memorial—to pay respects to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. I paid my respects at the Vietnam Wall Memorial, and laid a photo of Stretch Smaltz of Eagle, Pennsylvania, next to his fellow comrades in arms.

The major function of Rolling Thunder Inc., a nonprofit organization with nearly 90 chapters, is to publicize POW/MIA issues, to educate the public about the many American prisoners of war who were left behind in prior wars and to protect future veterans from being left behind should they become prisoners of war/missing in action. The organization sponsors search-and-retrieval missions into Southeast Asia for POW/MIAs and the remains of those killed in action. Rolling Thunder not only organizes the annual Memorial Day demonstration, but members log thousands of hours at local VA hospitals nationwide. These members provide moral support to nursing home veterans and patients suffering from PTSD and provide food, clothing and financial assistance to homeless veterans. Rolling Thunder got its name from a bombing campaign in Vietnam that was named Rolling Thunder by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Each Memorial Day in Washington, D.C., thousands of patriotic motorcyclists rumbling through Washington sounds like rolling thunder. (www.rollingthunder1.com)

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