A thunderous arrival for a solemn mission: Ride for Freedom marks its 26th year

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There is no better name for an event that resonates with patriotism, deep loyalty, sacrifice, a sense of mission and authentic history: Rolling Thunder. Oh, yeah. Here they come. They’re rolling, and it is thunderous.

For the 26th year, hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders will glide into the nation’s capital aboard perfectly tricked-out Harley-Davidsons, three-wheelers, newfangled racing bikes and old hogs — bound for the Ride for Freedom.

Last year, 750,000 riders were roaring their way from the Pentagon to hallowed acreage surrounding the Lincoln Memorial in homage to the U.S. military, not to mention chrome, mighty engines and old-school fossil fuel.

They hail from 90 chartered chapters, though all riders are welcome.

“Everything about this rally still affects me, no matter how many years we’ve been doing it. And everything we do is meant to remember and honor our POWs, MIAs and all of our veterans,” said former U.S. Army Sgt. Artie Muller, who founded the organization in 1987 and named it for a U.S. bombing campaign over North Vietnam more than two decades earlier.

“I lost a whole lot of guys in that war. I never forget that I made it back but they didn’t,” he said.

“It’s hard to predict how many will show up,” said organizer and spokeswoman Nancy Regg. “We lose members each year, particularly our Vietnam vets. It can be hard on some of them. But we always draw at least 500,000 riders. Always. And all are welcome.”

Something else, lingering and persistent, troubles Mr. Muller.

“It’s what we call the ‘live’ issue. Are the men who were left behind after all past wars still alive? We recover the remains of those lost, which is an honorable thing. But little is being done to resolve what happened to those left behind alive,” he said. “Sgt. Bowe R. Bergdahl, captured July 1, 2009, is still missing. What are we doing to get him home? Let’s find him and the others — including those missing soldiers from other countries.”

He also wants to know why the stark POW/MIA flag is not flown over the White House. “It was in previous administrations,” Mr. Muller said.

He should know. With such allies as chanteuse Nancy Sinatra and others along for the ride, Mr. Muller was warmly welcomed in the White House for years. George W. Bush made a practice of greeting them in the grand driveway of the presidential residence. The group had a brief but cordial visit with President Obama last year.

Just don’t get Mr. Muller started on health care, though. He is no fan of “Obamacare” and is particularly piqued over backlogs on disability claims, military budget cuts and increases in prescription costs for veterans. They are scheduled to rise from $9 to $36, he said.

“Why is that? Many vets can’t even afford their medications now. It’s a disgrace,” Mr. Muller said.

He established Rolling Thunder Charities six years ago as an entity to tend to veterans and active-duty personnel who are under financial or personal duress. Among the organization’s major backers are Harley-Davidson and Aetna. Ninety-five percent of the donations go directly to those in need, Mr. Muller said.

Though politics, policy and legislation are never far from the Rolling Thunder radar, the group has a sense of place and occasion. On Friday evening, a candlelight vigil will be held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Saturday’s events include a five-hour program at the Lincoln Memorial, a wreath presentation at the United States Navy Memorial, traditional Scottish pipes and drums, and plenty of opportunities to salute Old Glory. The American flag is properly displayed virtually everywhere at these events.

Rep. Reid J. Ribble, Wisconsin Republican, and Rep. Jon Runyan, New Jersey Republican, are among the scheduled speakers.

When Sunday dawns, the Rolling Thunder ride takes on a life of its own. It takes six hours to assemble all those motorcycles in the only spot big enough to hold them: the Pentagon parking lots. Preparing for the noon ride is no freewheeling occasion.

“No attitudes! Confirmed: everyone must wear a helmet! No alcoholic beverages in the Pentagon parking lot!” proclaimed an edict sent to the vast membership.

At 67, Mr. Muller has not lost his fervor for the ride or his instinct to guard the interests of the American military.

“Always remember our troops serving,” he said. “Always remember those who have borne the battle and those that gave their lives for us so we can live free.

“The cost of freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.”

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