For Tom Bender, fighting for his fellow veterans means more than showing up once a year in Washington for an awe-inspiring motorcycle rally.
The Vietnam combat veteran and head of Rolling Thunder Inc.'s government affairs team has taken the lead on lobbying Congress to improve health care benefits for members of the military and has spearheaded a number of other legislative priorities on behalf of his fellow vets.
Those efforts attract plenty of attention, but it's what Mr. Bender does behind the scenes — far away from the roar of a half-million motorcycles in the center of the nation's capital — that he feels makes perhaps the greatest difference.
"It's tragic, but I've grown accustomed to it. I understand what obstacles they'll run into. I can help them navigate the system," Mr. Bender said Monday, as he sat in the waiting room of a New Jersey VA hospital. He had driven a fellow Vietnam veteran to the medical center earlier that morning, a duty he tackles regularly but one that, admittedly, can be emotionally taxing.
He takes those experiences and the often heart-wrenching stories of fellow veterans with him to Capitol Hill, where he continues to push Rolling Thunder's broad legislative agenda.
The organization, gathering in D.C. this Memorial Day weekend for its 26th annual motorcycle rally, is best known for its work on POW/MIA issues. It took the lead in getting a bill passed in 1993 that kept the federal government from declaring a member of the military dead unless there is concrete proof.
The organization also helped push through legislation requiring government buildings to fly the black POW/MIA flag with the words "You are not forgotten."
One of its most recent successes was the "Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act," which was signed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and keeps protesters 300 feet from the entrance of any cemetery hosting a military funeral.
Rolling Thunder is now fighting for the creation of a congressional select committee to "conduct a full investigation of all unresolved matters relating to any United States POW/MIAs unaccounted for" from any past conflicts. The group's website features the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant captured by the Taliban in June 2009 who is believed to be the only living American serviceman being held in the Afghanistan conflict. The select committee idea has attracted a number of co-sponsors but has yet to make it to the House floor.
"It's a matter of priorities," Mr. Bender said, adding that despite the ongoing efforts of Rolling Thunder, the POW/MIA issue still isn't given the attention it deserves among lawmakers.
Rolling Thunder also continues its ongoing effort to speed up the processing of medical and benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs, pointing to the nearly 1 million outstanding claims still in the system. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki is facing increasing heat from lawmakers and some veterans groups as the backlog persists with an influx of new veterans from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moving forward, Mr. Bender and his colleagues also are pushing a number of bills to provide benefits for Vietnam veterans affected by Agent Orange and are seeking co-sponsors in Congress.
With Rolling Thunder's credibility and — this weekend — visibility on those and other issues, and given the sheer size of its annual bike rally, members of Congress can't help but pay attention.
"Groups like Rolling Thunder help keep [veterans' issues] in the front of the mind of members of Congress like myself," said Rep. Reid J. Ribble, Wisconsin Republican and one of two members of Congress scheduled to address the Rolling Thunder crowd. Rep. Jon Runyan, New Jersey Republican, also will speak, organizers of the event said.
But legislative efforts are only a part of the organization's mission. As Mr. Bender and others fight on the legislative front, Rolling Thunder's local chapters care for veterans in ways that too often go unnoticed.
"They just want us to come down and to be a part of their lives. We provide comfort," said James Bohannon, vice president of Rolling Thunder Maryland Chapter 1.
The group is organizing a Father's Day cookout at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where they expect to serve a few hundred veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"We're definitely passionate about taking care of them, of the men and women who put themselves in harm's way," Mr. Bohannon added.
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