More than 100 grizzled motorcyclists paid tribute yesterday to the members of the military who never returned home, laying a wreath at the bronze Lone Sailor of the U.S. Navy Memorial in Northwest.
Today is the Rolling Thunder motorcyclists' 20th annual Ride for Freedom, but yesterday, they left their motorcycles in shining rows on Pennsylvania Avenue for a quieter kind of memorial to remember those Americans taken prisoner or declared missing in action.
"This is what I feel I have to do," said Hugh Bremner, a 59-year-old Vietnam War veteran who will take part in his 14th Ride for Freedom today. "If we keep doing this, someone's got to pay attention."
The patriotic group, which included men, women and children from around the country, wore leather or denim vests adorned with patches declaring they rode "for those who can't speak for themselves."
Mr. Bremner rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle from New Jersey to attend the Memorial Day weekend rally. His purpose, he said, is to remind Americans of missing U.S. military members and remind the government to care for the veterans of the wars of today.
"Without the veterans, where would this country be?" he asked.
The group's president, Gary Sheffmeyer, laid a wreath after a short ceremony with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was the commanding officer of the USS Cole when it was bombed by al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Yemen in 2000.
The motorcyclists applauded when Cmdr. Lippold reminded Americans to pause and remember those who sacrificed their lives for freedom. The attack on the Cole killed 17 U.S. sailors.
Many of the Rolling Thunder members at the ceremony were Navy veterans. The group's vice president, Lynne M. Jenks, said Navy veterans of Vietnam often feel left out.
"Everybody talks about the Army, the Marines," she said. "The Navy guys get slighted a little bit, but this is their day. For the Navy guys, it's kind of a closure."
After the ceremony, many Rolling Thunder members visited veterans at the D.C. Veterans Affairs hospital, a service they perform every year the day before the Ride for Freedom. Many group members said it was simply an extension of something they did often at home.
A candlelight vigil was scheduled for last night at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Mr. Sheffmeyer said he expected 300,000 bikers will take to the roads at noon today for the ride from the Pentagon to the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial.
After a ceremony at the Reflecting Pool at 1:30 p.m., Rolling Thunder motorcyclists will settle in for a concert featuring Nancy Sinatra, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gordon Painter, and Paulette Carlson.
Mr. Sheffmeyer, a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, said the ceremony at the Navy Memorial was "very moving" for him.
"I'm feeling especially proud to be able to be here at the Navy Memorial today," he said. "I never thought I'd be able to take part in something like this wreath-laying."
Tomorrow, he said, "we're coming into town and letting America know we're not going away."