To get attention on Capitol Hill, Ted Shpak had to ditch the jacket and tie.
“I get more respect wearing jeans,” said the 64-year-old Vietnam veteran and president of Rolling Thunder Washington, D.C., which this weekend will hold its 25th annual motorcycle rally to bring attention to American service members still being held prisoner abroad or listed as missing in action.
But Rolling Thunder’s imprint on Washington goes far beyond the roar of hundreds of thousands of bikes on city streets each Memorial Day weekend. Led by Mr. Shpak, the organization has aggressively pushed a broad legislative agenda, with several of its priorities now the law of the land.
The first was 1993’s Missing Service Personnel Act, which states that missing soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen could not be declared dead without concrete proof.
“In the old days, they’d declare you dead after one day,” said Mr. Shpak, who began pushing the bill in 1984, three years before the first Rolling Thunder run. The measure received little attention until the organization began attracting larger and larger crowds to Washington each year, and Mr. Shpak decided that his previous approach of looking and talking like a politician — which included suits, pressed shirts and ties each day — wasn’t getting it done.
He began visiting every member of Congress’ office seeking support for the legislation, wearing his Rolling Thunder vest and a pair of jeans.
“I went to every office, and when I got done, I went back and started all over again. It took 10 years, but I got the bill passed,” he said. “I’m glad I did it. I’ve had people tell me there are lobbyists who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just to maybe get one bill passed.”
Rolling Thunder also drove the effort to create POW/MIA postage stamps to raise awareness of the issue. It also backed legislation requiring government buildings to fly the black POW/MIA flag, emblazoned with the words “You are not forgotten.” It has backed laws to improve housing, health care and other benefits for veterans and their families.
Most recently, Rolling Thunder led the charge to enact the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act, a measure designed to combat the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., and others who stage protests at military funerals.
Implemented in 2006, the law mandates that protesters be kept 300 feet from the entrance of a cemetery hosting a military funeral. The restriction goes into effect 60 minutes before the proceedings begin and lasts for an hour after it concludes.
“Rolling Thunder helped bring awareness to the issue of disruptions at American military funerals. … This bill has arguably helped to preserve dignity at military funerals throughout the United States since Congress passed it,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and the measure’s prime sponsor. “Rolling Thunder gives military families the respect they deserve by taking the initiative on their own to do what is right.”
While he’s thankful for the help and support of Mr. Rogers and others, Mr. Shpak views his work in Washington as something he needs to do, not something he wants to do.
“I don’t particularly like dealing with these people up here,” he said. “But what I do, I do from my heart.”