Bikers to swarm capital to honor vets

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“Rolling Thunder” is a most fitting motto.

Indeed, thousands of bikers are rolling along the Washington area’s roadways tomorrow with plenty of gumption and an unabashed carbon footprint. Exhaust pipes are vibrating, pistons are pumping, and it is, well, thunderous.

For the 21st year in a row, the two-wheeled crusade called Rolling Thunder has taken over the capital of the free world. Some 350,000 motorcyclists — plus their intrepid passengers, activists, organizers, fans and awestruck spectators — have assembled here to draw America’s attention to fallen soldiers, lost warriors, prisoners of war, honored veterans and military families.

The mighty take notice. In past years, President Bush himself has twice greeted a select group of Rolling Thunder riders, who piloted their massive machines right up the White House driveway, then stuck out their hands for a regulation high-five.

“First thing, this is about supporting America and our folks in the military past and present. It’s about love of country, love of bikes. People have a calling to be here,” said Pete Ries, a detention officer from Fredericksburg who has ridden “Old Blue” — his spotless, chrome-crowned Harley Davidson — in the annual event a half-dozen times.

The big cobalt blue bike has a eagle foot kickstand and is an “old-school chopper,” Mr. Ries said, tricked out with lofty “ape hanger” handlebars and custom-made sissybar on the back.

Photos:Rolling Thunder bikers up close

Old Blue will be part of massive group ride that begins assembling in the Pentagon parking lot at dawn and ends at the Lincoln Memorial at dusk — punctuated by the Pledge of Allegiance, a color guard, prayers, vigils, dramatic readings, music, a wreath laying and other activities meant to draw attention to POWS, those still missing in action and veteran’s issues.

Old Glory and the brooding presence of POW flags are everywhere.

The experience is unique, even for Mr. Ries, a Vietnam-era Army vet who’s ridden motorcycles for four decades.

“It’s a sea of bikes when we’re assembling at the Pentagon. Every kind you can imagine. It takes five hours. Then the word finally comes: ‘Start those engines.’ You hear the thunder as we fire up, row after row, like a wave coming — then we start the move forward. When it’s your turn to go, it’s unbelievable. People get choked up,” Mr. Ries said.

The riders themselves have some airborne help from a different breed of choppers this year.

For the first time, “Flying Thunder” has joined the effort. In mid-May, a quartet of 40-year-old UH-1 “Huey” helicopters took off from Palm Springs, Calif., and escorted several groups of riders as they journeyed towards Washington. The four aircraft landed in Lynchburg, Va., Saturday and will offer a flyby in our skies Sunday.

There’s some celebrity firepower too.

“I am inspired by the dedication to veterans as expressed by Rolling Thunder. I am a vet. My father was a vet,” said actor John Amos, whose TV roles in “Good Times,” “West Wing” and the classic miniseries “Roots” have brought him a devoted audience.

He’ll be aboard his own Harley and offer a dramatic reading of Colin Powell’s “Letter to a Soldier” when the event is in full swing by the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

“With so many men and women in combat zones, the whole nation needs to pay attention to them and their familes, some who have been placed in positions of extreme hardship. They deserve every ounce of our respect, and I’m proud to be a part of it, ” Mr. Amos said.

“This means more to me than anything in Hollwood. This is real life,” he added.

Other high-profile riders include Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. James Nuttall, deputy director of the Army National Guard Deputy; Transportation Secretary Mary Peters; Sgt. Major of the Army Ken Preston; Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, former Joint Chiefs chairman; and Anthony Principi, former secretary of Veterans Affairs.

They lead a most determined assemblage.

“We’ve got people from every state including Hawaii and Califronia, from Canada, Australia, Europe. Some have their bikes shipped here, some ‘fly and ride,’ ” said Artie Muller, an Army vet who founded Rolling Thunder in 1995 and now serves as its executive director.

The group is a nonprofit organization boasting 85 active chapters nationwide, with a separate charity branch established last year.

“We’re not a motorcycle group. People don’t even need a motocycle to join. About 55 percent of us are military vets,” Mr. Muller said. “We donate our time, no one gets any compensation, and 100 percent of the money we raise goes to help vets or their families. We try to help people understand that without our military, without our vets, America would not be free,” he added.

Their charitable activities are distinctive.

Raffles and public events raise funds for ailing vets or the families of injured soldiers who need help with medical bills or transportation to distant hospitals. Rolling Thunder has financed expeditions to recover remains in Vietnam, North Korea and elsewhere; volunteers send packages to troops overseas, or come up with 3,000 pocket flags for those who are deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a speaker’s bureau and a spate of local programs that send members to schools, rehabilitation centers, senior citizen homes.

For all the smokin’ hullabaloo, Mr. Muller says tomorrow’s ride is also a political demonstration.

“Rolling Thunder continues to demand answers for the search for Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher from [Operation] Desert Storm and three soldiers missing in Iraq. When are the representatives in Washington going to demand those answers from countries known to have captured and held live American POW”s from all past wars?” he asked.

Mr. Muller is particularly piqued at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

“She’s holding up House Resolution 111, which will establish a select committee on POW/MIA affairs. What are we going to do about those who were left behind? She won’t hear the bill, she won’t even answer our letters. Pelosi is arrogant,” Mr. Muller said.

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