An estimated 300,000 motorcyclists, led by members of Rolling Thunder, the motorcycle-riding veterans advocacy group, converged on the District yesterday to pay tribute to fallen comrades and call on the nation's leaders to find those soldiers still missing or unaccounted for.
"I'm proud to be an American. I'm proud to serve America," said Army Maj. Andras M. Marton, 33, who was injured in Iraq and confined to a wheelchair when he first appeared two years ago at the Rolling Thunder demonstration.
Mr. Marton said the support he received that day from the thousands of motorcyclists from all over the country inspired his recovery.
Back on his feet and back on active duty, he returned to Iraq earlier this year and saw "thousands of Iraqis holding up their fingers in joy" during the national elections.
The veteran was one of hundreds of thousands sharing the camaraderie on the Mall yesterday before, during and after a two-hour program at the end of the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Participation in the Memorial Day weekend ride has grown every year since 2,500 motorcycles rolled into Washington in 1988, said Rolling Thunder President Gary Scheffmeyer, of Pittstown, N.J.
"It shows a lot of people here care," said Mr. Scheffmeyer, 57, who was in the Navy from 1965 to 1968 and now operates a drywall company.
The group's stated goal is to account for all missing American military personnel, especially in Vietnam, where about 1,800 Americans still are unaccounted for.
"This is America. We have a right to know where and how they are doing," said Roger Hall, a Rolling Thunder member who oversees the group's efforts on behalf of missing military personnel.
Founder Artie Muller, an Army veteran, was critical of President Bush and Congress for failing to act on veterans' issues.
Motorcyclists began gathering as early as 8 a.m. in the North Pentagon parking lot in preparation for the ride over the Memorial Bridge to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Thousands more parked on lawns of federal buildings along the Mall and on street medians.
"It grows every year," said Robbie Collins, 52, of McDowell County, W.Va. He said he has participated since 1995.
Still led by Vietnam-era veterans, the group now is seeing more veterans and families of those who have served in Iraq.
"We have been told by the military that they are continuing to try to find Matt," said Carol Maupin, who with her husband, Keith Maupin, told how their son, Sgt. Matt Maupin, disappeared in Iraq.
"On April 9, 2004, our lives changed forever," Mrs. Maupin said.
Drifting among the tattooed, leather-jacketed Rolling Thunder members were two women in black-hooded hats and ground-length black dresses, and two men in Civil War uniforms.
"We're here to honor the war dead," said Georgia Meadows, of Woodbridge, Va., explaining that the Independent Re-enactment Group has mixed with Rolling Thunder for five years.
Yesterday's program will be remembered by Heidi Forster, 33, of Bethesda, and Gregory Gertner, 30, of Orange County, Calif. She was wearing a long, white wedding dress and posing with Mr. Gertner for photographers at the corner of the Reflecting Pool with the Capitol and Washington Monument in the background.
"We're getting married at the Mayflower," Miss Forster said.