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Rolling Thunder XXIII

By Pat Ulrich-Aultman

An emotional bond

Patriotism resounds in D.C.

Washington, D.C., May 30—This year, the first part of my annual sojourn to Rolling Thunder was missing a participant—me. Seems our government found me indispensable right before our launch date, needing me instead to stay and work a little more before taking my few days off. But my old man Tim remained undaunted and, along with my son Jason and several other riders from our riding group, the Iron Horse Clan took off from Georgia early Thursday before the Memo­rial Day weekend. The clan kept me informed during the ride to the Capital, the weather cooperated and the riding was great. And I wasn’t even surprised when I heard that our bike was on a trailer for a short while. The old girl has enough miles now that she gets a little cantankerous once in a while. But it was nothing major—repaired the first night and the journey completed.

Originally founded in the fall of 1987 in a small diner in New Jersey, Rolling Thunder was conceived by two Vietnam War veterans, Artie Muller and Ray Manzo, whose goal was to bring attention to the plight of neglected POW and MIA soldiers from that war. It was decided to hold their first demonstration in Washington, D.C., during the 1988 Memorial Day weekend. It was also determined that the group’s arrival should be announced by the roar of their motorcycles, a sound similar to the 1965 bombing campaign against North Vietnam that had been dubbed Operation Rolling Thunder. That first gathering marshaled 2,500 motorcycles from across the country. It has grown to an estimated 900,000 today. During that first assembly, the foundation was established for the annual “Ride for Free­dom” to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall, a.k.a. the “Ride to the Wall.”

I flew in Saturday to meet up with everybody so the one thing I missed was the Friday night candlelight vigil that was held in the driving rain. I arrived late Saturday afternoon and spent the rest of the next four days on the back of the bike and relaxing with friends not seen for a while. We had our group meeting onSaturday when a few more joined the clan, including my son Jason. Brian, my other son, is the one responsible for bringing me into the Iron Horse Clan eight years ago. The riders are made up primarily of active and retired military and civil service workers. This unique blend of individuals makes the Rolling Thunder ride that much more important to all of us. Some of us are still deployed, and one special one lost his life in Iraq. Our patriotism runs a close race with our love of riding.

Although on Sunday morning we are always up early and ready to roll, it never seems quite early enough. Once again, after a 45-minute ride, we rolled into the parking lot of the Pentagon only to discover they were already directing riders to line up in the second lot. The forecast for the day was a hot and dry 90 degrees. And even though it was still early in the day, you could already tell that the meteorologists had nailed that prediction. Four-deep on the road, riders are brought into the parking lot to form a single line. After getting in the queue, we prepared for the wait. We have arrived at the lot by 9:30 and the bikes won’t begin to file out till the noon departure time. Thankfully there are the usual vendors and tents to visit as well as food booths for our afternoon munchies.

With groups present representing many of the military support organizations, this crowd is one that still holds our country’s honor high. The Memorial Weekend ride has become a large part of many a rider’s experience. Originally designed as a protest, it is now a united cause to bring accountability for all POWs and MIAs from all wars. I was with my new hubby this weekend, he being an Air Force veteran and retired civil servant. This was his first ride, making it even more special. I also was able to share it with both my sons, both Army vets, making it an even more special day for me. All the soldiers in my life made it home safely, while many were not so lucky.

When we saw the bomber fly overhead to signal the start of the ride, we started to make our way back to the bikes. We knew that it would still be several hours before we needed to mount up, so we just migrated to the closest shade trees. Everywhere you looked, any available shade was filled with those seeking relief from the hot sun. But no one appeared anxious or fretful; it was actually a very calm and peaceful atmosphere. One of our members is a bagpipe player and he began to play while we waited. The crowd enjoyed the performance and we were pleased to offer it. By the time we began to file out, it was past 2:30. We later learned there were two additional parking lots full of bikes that fell in line behind the two staged at the Pentagon.

As we made our way across the bridge into Washington, a stoic soldier’s salute and crowds lining the closed streets greeted us. One can’t help but to feel the emotion and the patriotism that fills our nation’s capital on this very special Sunday afternoon. I am one of those whose eyes tend to get a little teary as these emotions well up inside. The mixture of onlookers and bikers are diversified, yet united at the same time. Along the route, many of our capital’s landmarks are in view, giving cause to think deeply of the price many have paid to keep our nation free. After all the bikes reached our destination, we embarked on the walk to the memorials in the National Park. My sons and I share a very emotional bond as we walk the Vietnam Wall, as we recall the day their dad was to make this ride with us but was instead embarking on the battle of his life. The flowers, notes and memorials placed alongside names and areas at all the memorials remind us that those whose names are here may be gone but are not forgotten.

As the day came to a close we headed to one more stop on our ride—Arlington Cemetery. The number of headstones is astounding. While one of our riders took a moment to visit the grave of his father, we watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The day was drawing to a close so we headed back for one last evening meal with our friends before departing on our own journeys home. Emotions were high and feelings of deep gratitude for those who have served ran deep. For those who have never experienced this ride, it is one that I would highly recommend.

The next morning we started out early after lots of hugs, love and well wishes, saying our farewells until the next time we came together. Almost all of us encountered some severe rain on the trip home, but we still arrived safely. Despite the nasty ride home, we all had a wonderful time, a meaningful experience, and would do it again in a heartbeat. And I learned that my two boys are definitely diehard bikers, just like their father. I am proud to call them my sons. Till next time, I wish you all safe, enjoyable and fun-filled days of riding. And please, never forget those left behind or unaccounted for.

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