- - Sunday, May 30, 2004

Thousands of bikers rolled into the District yesterday for the 17th annual Rolling Thunder Memorial Day motorcycle ride and rally to show support for the nation’s war veterans, the troops currently overseas and American prisoners of war still missing in action from past conflicts.

“It is important for veterans from every war to know that there are people out here who care about the sacrifices they made and that what they do is important,” said Matthew Whalen, 40, who was one of about 200,000 riders who made the trek downtown yesterday.

Mr. Whalen rode to the rally from his home in Plymouth, Mass., on a 1989 Harley-Davidson Sportster with a 4-foot American flag attached to a seat rail. The flag has been on his bike since shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I’m here to say, ‘Thank you,’ and give remembrance to veterans,” said Mr. Whalen, whose father served in the Korean War.

President Bush was the first president to meet privately with leaders of Rolling Thunder Inc., the nonprofit group dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of POWs and other veterans’ issues.

Gary Scheffneyer, vice president of Rolling Thunder, attended the half-hour Oval Office meeting and said Mr. Bush was receptive to the group’s call for a more concerted effort to bring home POWs and those missing in action from conflicts dating back to World War II.

Mr. Scheffneyer said Mr. Bush told him he was not fully aware that the government was not doing enough to recover the missing soldiers. He pledged to work closely with the secretary of Veterans Affairs to correct the situation.

The president also discussed his plans for the country and his vision for the reconstruction of Iraq. “He said that once we get freedom in the Iraqi nation, we will get more freedom in the United States,” Mr. Scheffneyer said. “The [United States] is torn apart now because of the war, but he said that afterwards there will be even more unity.”

Joining Mr. Scheffneyer at the White House were other Rolling Thunder officers and a group of supporters, including veterans rights advocate Nikki Mendicino and entertainer Nancy Sinatra.

Miss Sinatra also performed at the rally along with 1960s rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders and country singer Gordon Painter.

Rolling Thunder members have roared into the District every Memorial Day weekend since 1987. The group took its name from Operation Rolling Thunder — the extensive bombing campaign during the Vietnam War.

“When you ride a whole bunch of Harleys together with straight pipes, it sounds like a B-52 carpet bombing,” said Artie M. Muller, president and co-founder of Rolling Thunder and an Army combat veteran from the Vietnam War.

Yesterday’s Rolling Thunder procession began at noon at the Pentagon parking lot and entered the city via the Arlington Memorial Bridge before making a loop through downtown and ending at the rally at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Park. The procession briefly contributed to traffic already snarled by competing events downtown.

Still, people throughout the metropolitan area celebrated the motorcycle riders and the veterans they represented. Supporters stood on overpasses on many of the routes the bikers took to get to the city and waved American flags and banners that proclaimed support for war veterans.

However, the procession was not without incident. Two bikers were hospitalized yesterday morning when a silver Lincoln Town Car merged into a row of motorcycles in the unit block of New York Avenue NW and struck one of the Harley-Davidson motorcycles from behind, according to witnesses.

The impact forced the motorcycle into another motorcycle, injuring both riders. One rider suffered a broken ankle, while the other suffered possible head and back injuries, witnesses said.

A U.S. Postal Service officer who was the first on the scene said it took the Metropolitan Police Department more than 20 minutes to respond to the accident.

An ambulance arrived within five minutes, he said.

Colin Schoonover, 37, the son of one of the injured bikers and an eight-year veteran of the Rolling Thunder demonstrations, said the accident might keep him from returning to the event next year.

“It’s a worthy cause, but the cars don’t want us here,” said Mr. Schoonover, who rode from Ohio beside his father for the rally. “It’s too crazy. My friend got run over last year at the loop at Arlington [National] Cemetery. I’m done.”

The bikers traveled from all over the world to participate in the rally and represented diverse walks of life.

Some came because they were veterans; others participated to pay tribute to their family and friends who served or died in the nation’s wars.

All of the bikers had two things in common: a love for motorcycles and a deep respect for American troops.

Many rode Harley-Davidsons that produce the distinctive tailpipe rumble that accounts for the group’s name. But the motorcycles were as varied as their riders.

Kerry Jones, 38, a defense contractor from St. Mary’s County, Md., joined the motorcycle parade on his Yamaha Secca XJ600. “I just want to show support and remember why we have this country, because people gave up their freedom so we can have ours,” he said.

Sally Attia, an Egyptian who works as an entertainment reporter for the U.S.-run Arabic-language satellite news channel Alhurra, was dressed in a white jumpsuit and riding on the back of a silver 1999 Harley-Davidson Soft Tail Custom. The bike was driven by a Philadelphia man who identified himself only as “Wolf.”

“I love the idea that we are all supporting the veterans,” Miss Attia said.

Robert Beach, 80, a Navy veteran who served in World War II and survived the torpedo attack on the USS Canberra, rode in the demonstration on his sky-blue 1996 Harley-Davidson Road King equipped with a sidecar. His wife, Frances, rode in the sidecar.

The front of the sidecar was decorated with the mascot from the USS Canberra, a kangaroo with an 8-inch cannon shell tucked under its arm and an array of 40 mm cannons at its feet. The rear of the sidecar was decorated with an air-brushed painting of the USS Canberra in battle.

“I love to ride and I’m a veteran,” said Mr. Beach, who lives in Woodbridge, Va. “I support Rolling Thunder and the ride to free men who have been prisoners.”