Memorial Day is a holiday which brings joy and sadness all at the same time. While it is the start of the summer holiday season, it also serves to remind us of our military personnel around the globe who have given their all protecting freedom and our great republic. Unfortunately, this year brings additional despair with the 32nd, and possibly last “Rolling Thunder” ride in Washington D.C. On Memorial Day, riders from all over the country will file out of the Pentagon Parking lot, in a seemingly never-ending parade passing across the Memorial Bridge, down Constitution Avenue to the Capitol, and back to West Potomac Park along Independence Avenue. Possibly for the last time.
“Rolling Thunder” is a collaborative effort of Veterans organizations across the country. No matter where you live in the continental United States, you are close to a pre-planned ride to D.C., scheduled for the riders to arrive in time for Memorial Day. In the Los Angeles area of Southern California, the trip is organized as a 10-day event starting in Orange County by “Run for the Wall” (RFTW.org). Through the years, as I watched news stories about this event, I thought someday, I am going to ride with them. So, when I retired in 2006, with my wife Pam in my Harley’s Passenger Seat, along with George, a Korean War Veteran, and Gene, a Vietnam Veteran, we made our way to the start. I knew from the onset I would be asked where I served, and as I am not a military veteran, I was not going to stretch the truth. I was asked that question many times, and in each case, I was also sternly asked, “If you did not serve, why are you here?” To which I replied, “I am here to support you and thank you for your service to our country.” That is all it took for the tension to subside and a smile to appear on the veteran’s face, with a friendly hand extended.
As motorcycle events go, “Run for the Wall” is unique. No entry fees are charged, and you are invited to ride “all the way” or join the group along the route, and if necessary, drop off as needed. If this is your first time participating, you will be given an NFG badge, indicating you are a New F-G Guy, deserving of an extra hug at morning rider’s meetings. When we signed up in 2006, there was a special table with an author handing out Veterans Self-Help books. He autographed one and asked me to pass it on to a Vietnam Veteran when I returned home, which I did. The year 2006 had about 800 riders ready to get on their way. We were given a choice of taking the Central or Southern Route. With the two groups evenly divided, we chose the Central Route and ended up riding in six groups called “platoons,” which had a two-second interval between them. Within each platoon, we were required to ride side by side, one-wheel length apart. It was a little hectic, with the Road Guards wanting me to pull-up closer, and someone behind me pounding on my shoulder to back off.
Every day started off with an early morning rider’s meeting. It was a time to get information on the day’s events, and possibly to hug an NFG. But each rider’s meeting ends on a somber note, reminding us of a soldier who went missing in Vietnam on the anniversary of this day. A letter to the missing soldier was held up, and the group was asked, “Who will take this letter to the Wall?” Each time, a veteran would volunteer to complete this solemn task.
You might wonder; How do you gas up 400 motorcycles in a reasonable amount of time? Well, gas stops were preselected every hundred miles, with an RFTW Volunteer holding the pumps open. Riders were asked to keep a wad of one-dollar bills with them. You would pull up to the pump, fill your tank and pay an amount rounded up to the nearest dollar. The extra change goes toward fueling the chase trucks and trailers following the platoons. But, about half the time, the gas cost was covered by the gas station owner.
Since the trip is choreographed, participants know where they will be every day. Hotels are available at each “days end” location, or you can camp if you so choose. Along the way, the patriotism and generosity of Middle America shined brightly. Hotels lowered their fees for the event, meals were provided by many VFW, American Legion Posts and even some private restaurants. Town residents know when the RFTW procession will be arriving and are waiting for the group to pass through their town. Onlookers armed with American flags and patriotic banners greet Veterans in a way which makes them feel like the heroes they truly are. One of the more memorable states we passed through was New Mexico, with the Highway Patrol clearing the freeway for us, all while a New Mexico National Guard helicopter flew overhead as we rode through the state. On May 19, 2006, we stopped in Grants, New Mexico for the dedication of a Vietnam Memorial built by private citizens, with ongoing maintenance being taken over by the state. Governor Richardson was present for the dedication and his staff handed out patches to commemorate the day. Then on the Navaho Nation, we witnessed a grand ceremony honoring members of the tribe who served in the military, followed by lunch for all 400 of us. Navaho tribe members are rightfully honored, and are well-known for their efforts as “code talkers” in World War II’s Pacific Theater.
One special place visited by RFTW each year is Rainelle, West Virginia. When RFTW first started their journey to the Wall 32 years ago, Rainelle was one of the first places to openly embrace the veterans passing through their town. Stopping at the high school and taking a tour showed their schools still teach U.S. history, with areas dedicated to pictures representing WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Students competed to see who could get the most veteran’s autographs. But, while we were greeted by the residents of Rainelle with open arms, the morning riders meeting warned us that the law enforcement climate was about to change as we entered Virginia. How challenging it must be for the organizers to be facing hostility for such a patriotic event. We staged just outside of Washington D.C., waiting for the planned unification of central and southern Route Platoons for a ride to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, when our plans came to a sudden halt. You might remember the day before Memorial Day in 2006, a forklift backfired in the basement of a Washington D.C. building, causing the city to be locked down, which required us to remain where we were. When we finally got to our hotel, my small group of three motorcycles did visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Because of the lockdown, there weren’t many visitors present, but the reverent atmosphere remained in place. Nothing will keep your eyes from tearing up when the Wall is directly in front of you.
We arrived at the “Final Night Dinner” early to find round tables set for groups of 12. As our table had empty seats, a young gentleman asked if his party could join us. It turned out that his group included the book author we met the first day who intended to continue giving out his books during the evening. Soon, a long line of Vietnam Veterans formed behind us. They all wanted to speak with the author. Sitting next to him, I heard the same story repeated over and over. It told of soldiers coming home drug-addicted, hitting bottom, and not knowing what to do until they found his book. They wanted to thank him, because the information within turned their life around. It certainly left an impact on me, and the next day, I decided as a non-veteran it was inappropriate for me to participate further. The last phase, “Rolling Thunder,” is something which should be reserved exclusively for veterans.
This year, RFTW got bigger, with 651 participants on the Central Route, 374 on the Mid-Country Route, and 618 on the Southern Route – all still riding for those who can’t. Let’s hope and pray the problems are resolved and “Rolling Thunder” goes on to live again in 2020 and beyond.