‘Thunder’ rode, again

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The polished chrome of thousands of motorcycles gleamed under cloudless blue sky yesterday as the annual Rolling Thunder procession officially rumbled into Washington to honor U.S. troops fighting around the world and to remember the forgotten.

“This is about supporting America and our folks in the military, past and present,” said Pete Ries, who has been to the event at least six times. “It’s about love of country, love of bikes. People have a calling to be here.”

Pedestrians lined Independence Avenue in Northwest to greet and slap high-fives with the first wave of riders who arrived midday at the Mallfrom the Pentagon for a rally and speeches.

“This is the most important gathering I have ever been a part of,” said actor John Amos, a veteran who read retired Gen. Colin L. Powell’s “A Letter to a Soldier.”

Mr. Amos said he believes in the event because it draws attention to the issue of prisoners of war (POWs) or those missing in action (MIA).

“All these men and woman must be accounted for,” he said. “We live in the greatest country in the world, and a gathering like this confirms that we have more freedom.”

An estimated 350,000 people yesterday participated in the 21st annual “Ride for Freedom” event. They rode on motorcycles adorned with U.S. flags, POW and MIA flags, teddy bears and mementos honoring war veterans from across the country.

Many of the riders were from Rolling Thunder Inc., a nonprofit group with more than 80 chapters nationwide and members abroad.

“It’s about the veterans, the issues, and our country,” said Artie Muller, a Vietnam War veteran and Rolling Thunder’s national executive director. “It’s about those soldiers who are in the hospital, and who have lost a leg or an arm. Somebody has to speak up for them. If we don’t keep the pressure on, we will lose in the long run.”

The group once again met with President Bush at the White House this Memorial Day weekend, making him an honorary member and presenting him with a black leather vest.

“We just choppered in, Artie, and saw your brothers and sisters cranking up their machines and driving through the nation’s capital — many of them have got the flag on the back,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Muller and other riders.

The president called the masses of motorcycles, which he observed from his helicopter just moments before, “a magnificent sight.”

“And I am just so honored to welcome you back,” Mr. Bush said. “I want to thank you and all your comrades for being so patriotic and loving our country as much as you do.

“And our troops appreciate you, the veterans appreciate you and your president appreciates you,” he said.

The president also greeted some of his aides who joined in for the ride, including Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and his top economic adviser, Edward P. Lazear, who wore a black bandanna and Harley-Davidson vest.

Clayton “Chief” Burnell Sr., and wife Terri were in Washington when they caught sight of the motorcycle procession.

“We had a biker wedding, so it’s only fitting to see the Rolling Thunder on our anniversary,” Mrs. Burnell said. The couple wed five years ago.

Mr. Burnell, from Manitowoc, Wis., served in the Air Force during Vietnam, and Mrs. Burnell has a sister who served in Desert Storm.

Participants were clear that the rumble and gleam of tens of thousands of motorcycles in the nation’s capital draws attention.

“Motorcycles are used to make noise, to get the attention of the public and government,” said Paul Levesque, chairman of the board of directors for Rolling Thunder Chapter 5, in North Carolina.

Mr. Levesque served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and said pressure must be put on the government to return to Vietnam to account for those still missing in action. More than 1,700 Vietnam-era troops remain missing, and the majority of participants in the demonstration were Vietnam veterans.

Roughly 45 percent of Rolling Thunder members are nonveterans.

“One of the reasons I came here is because I lost some classmates, and a friend of mine’s brother died” in Vietnam, said Dave Hagler, an Air Force veteran from Richmond.

Mr. Hagler said at least one of his family members served in every war since World War II. His niece is currently serving in Iraq.

Rolling Thunder member Doc Spresser, of Rehoboth Beach, Del., said the group should never quit fighting for POWs or MIAs.

“If one day, through the grace of God, a POW comes home, I will at least be able to say, ‘I fought for you to come home,’ ” said Mr. Spresser, an Army combat medic in Vietnam and a member of the national chapter of Rolling Thunder.

The events yesterday concluded a three-day commemoration of troops serving, veterans who served, and POWs or MIAs. Other events included a candlelight vigil Friday and a wreath-laying ceremony Saturday.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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