The death of Osama bin Laden, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11 were all perhaps suitable rallying cries for this year’s Rolling Thunder event. But the thousands of military and civilian motorcycle riders who rumbled across the District on Sunday for the 24th annual event never wavered from their original message about remembering American prisoners of war and supporting veterans.
“This whole thing was here before 9/11,” Iraq veteran Staff Sgt. Scot Dellmore said. “I always come here. You can’t beat D.C. You can’t beat the crowd of bikes.”
This year marks Sgt. Dellmore’s fourth Rolling Thunder event. Stationed with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, an hour’s drive from the Canadian border in northern New York, Sgt. Dellmore made the 460-mile ride on his Harley Davidson 2005 Softail Springer Classic.
Last year, he missed the daylong ride because he was in Iraq.
“Next year, I’ll miss it because I’ll be in Afghanistan,” he said.
Bikes of all makes, shapes and sizes revved their engines Sunday to a deafening roar that echoed through the Mall for hours on a hot, overcast afternoon.
Bill Whitlow of Youngstown, Ohio, said sitting five hours in the Pentagon parking lot before the start of the ride was tough, but seeing the lines of cheering crowds and U.S. flags “made it worth the wait.”
“We haven’t served but we have family who have,” said wife Rose.
Decked out in black and denim - the unofficial uniform of Rolling Thunder participants - the Whitlows participated this year in their third ride.
“It’s a different feeling. It’s the people cheering who don’t even know you,” Mr. Whitlow said when asked whether bin Laden’s death, celebrated into the early morning outside the nearby White House earlier in the month, made this year’s Rolling Thunder stand out.
Even the highly anticipated 2012 presidential elections loomed over this year’s event.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a potential GOP candidate next year, visited the Pentagon parking lot to talk with wounded soldiers and took a ride on a bike in her black leather and heels.
At a stage set up between the Lincoln and Korean War memorials, a small crowd of people cheered as some of Rolling Thunder’s biggest supporters delivered their message.
“This is why you get out and ride in the hot sun, you give up your Memorial Days and times with your families,” Lynn O’Shea, a director of research for the National Alliance of Families, said to cheers. “You want them home. I want them home, It’s time we bring them home.”
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, in a navy blazer and gray pants, received the largest applause and loudest cheers as he took the mic and addressed the crowd.
He applauded the Rolling Thunder members he said make sure veterans “are recognized, honored and never forgotten.”
“This is my final Memorial Day serving my term as secretary of defense, every day of it at war,” Mr. Gates said.
He told those who participated in the event that generations of soldiers can never be repaid but “your work and the sounds of the bikes” help remind them of their “cost incurred and enduring strength.”