As hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists gathered Sunday morning outside the Pentagon for the 25th annual Rolling Thunder ride into the District, Jim Bradley couldn’t help but marvel at the scene.
Mr. Bradley, a retired Air Force lieutenant, rode in his first Rolling Thunder 15 years ago and has come back every year since - each time leaving in awe of the boundless patriotism and sheer scale of the event, which is held to honor veterans, including prisoners of war and service members missing in action.
“It’s important that the people up on Capitol Hill know that it’s the politicians’ responsibility to account for everyone they send over there,” said Mr. Bradley, 73, of Apollo Beach, Fla. “We’re here to let them know that we’re going to be here until they take care of everybody.”
An estimated 400,000 people rode in Sunday’s rally, traveling en masse through the District and to the Mall to cap a weekend of vigils, concerts, speeches and other events.
The first Rolling Thunder was in 1988, organized by a group of Vietnam War veterans who sought to bring attention to the veterans unaccounted for overseas.
About 2,500 riders participated in the first ride, using their roaring engines as a way to grab the attention of U.S. officials.
It would be an understatement to say the event has grown since then.
“This is just phenomenal. I’ve never seen so many bikes in my life,” said Kaye Hollifield of Edenton, N.C. “We just can’t afford to forget the price that they’ve paid.”
Many of the riders were decked out in jeans and leather vests with military insignia on the hot, humid afternoon, looking every bit the part of a tough, grizzled biker gang while also fostering a strong, positive message.
“When you usually see a crew of bikers go down the road, you want to move out of the way and go somewhere else,” said Rich Anderson, 49, a retired Army specialist from Bristow, Va. “But when you see them in a pack, all with the flags, it kind of brings out a different feeling.”
While many riders were veterans, many more were civilians who came to honor friends, family members and even complete strangers who have devoted their lives to protecting the country and in some cases paid the ultimate price.
“I’ve lost uncles and friends and everything. I’ll do anything to support a soldier,” said Mike Evangelho of Brick, N.J., a civilian who brought along a friend who served in Vietnam.
Organizers consider Rolling Thunder to be more of a demonstration than a parade, as it has the very serious goal of raising awareness of the more than 80,000 U.S. service members who are unaccounted for since World War II, including Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being held captive by the Taliban - the only current U.S. POW from the war in Afghanistan.
“If they think there’s no patriotism in the United States, let them come here,” Mr. Bradley said. “These are people that want to show some appreciation for the military and pay their respects to those who never come back.”