Thousands of motorcyclists with the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group, including war veterans, rumbled into the District yesterday to deliver a request for President Bush to help missing service members and those struggling after returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"There's more [riders] here than last year," said Gary Scheffmeyer, 59, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and is president of the national group, which is dedicated to issues related to past and present prisoners of war and U.S. service members missing in action.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there were more than half a million here," he said.
Under a hot sun and humid conditions, members, including many in leather jackets and vests trimmed in military regalia, took the 20th annual Ride for Freedom from the Pentagon in Arlington to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall and held a two-hour program in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Group leaders met with Mr. Bush at the White House during the parade and before the program began on the edge of the Reflecting Pool within a bright view of the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol.
Artie Muller, a former Army sergeant and founder and executive director of Rolling Thunder, said the president was asked to consider four requests: account for U.S. service members left behind in wars without retribution; change the "missing/captured" classification back to "prisoner of war/missing in action"; provide more funding to wounded troops; and assist more than 22,000 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and need treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We had a nice discussion with the president," Mr. Muller said. "He said he would have it looked at."
Mr. Muller led 13 visitors who came calling on the White House on eight motorcycles. The guests included Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters and White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, whose Harley-Davidson was decked out with patriotic bunting.
Mr. Bush gave out handshakes and hugs, took at look at the gleaming bikes, then invited his visitors into the Oval Office.
"How you doing, Artie? Welcome back," the president said.
Mr. Bush held a similar greeting at the White House in 2004 for Rolling Thunder, which endorsed him in both his presidential bids.
"I believe he is an honorable man, a personable man," Mr. Scheffmeyer said after the meeting.
Mr. Bush is scheduled to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery today in commemoration of Memorial Day.
The weekend of Rolling Thunder events -- which attracted riders, supporters and sightseers from across the country -- snarled traffic yesterday on most major roads leading to the District and along the parade route, including the Memorial Bridge.
Rolling Thunder member Audrey Meehan, who said she has missed only three of the 20 rides, helps find the families of servicemen and women who never returned from combat. She said many families have given up on learning the fate of their loved ones.
"We can't find the families," said Miss Meehan, of Honolulu. "We've got the remains and have identified hundreds, so the remains can be returned. ... We've got hundreds of remains from the Korean War. The Korean War is a forgotten war."
She said the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command relies on Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville to identify remains.
Those in the audience rose from their seats on the concrete steps between the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool to join in the Pledge of Allegiance, national anthem and invocation by Chaplain Tom Ransdell.
They applauded after Pat Boone sang a proposed anthem for the National Guard, the only military organization without an anthem.
Riders began arriving Friday night for a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam memorial. On Saturday, many rode to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Veterans Administration headquarters.
Events today will include a parade around the Capitol and National Mall. Mr. Boone will again sing the proposed anthem, "For My Country."
In the parade will be Bob Feller, 88, an Iowan who interrupted his professional baseball career with the Cleveland Indians to serve four years as an anti-aircraft gunner in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
n This article is based in part of wire service reports.