- - Monday, May 29, 2000

For Verlin Mattox, merging with the sea of bikers who rolled into the capital yesterday as part of the annual “Rolling Thunder” rally was part of the healing process for a war he fought 30 years ago.

“Being here is very important to me… . I lost friends in Vietnam,” said the tall, ponytailed and leather-clad Indianapolis native, his eyes tearing up a little. Then, chin up, Mr. Mattox, 51, said, “I’d fight the government before I fight another war.”

Many of the bikers and other veterans gathered from around the country to pay tribute to friends and family at the Vietnam Memorial echoed Mr. Mattox’s feelings, claiming the government was not doing enough about bringing home Americans missing in action.

“We are here for three reasons: to ask the government to bring back American prisoners of war, to ask for legislation that this will never happen again, and to take care of our veterans here,” said Artie Muller, president of Rolling Thunder Inc., organizer of the rally that first began in 1988.

“The government has done nothing about it, never given their full cooperation,” Mr. Muller said.

The rally is named for “Operation Rolling Thunder,” one of the last bombing campaigns carried out in Vietnam between 1965 and 1968. Starting with just 2,500 bikers the first year, the rally this year attracted between 250,000 and 300,000 bikers, Mr. Muller said.

Although this is the rally’s 13th year, the organization was formed only five years ago, he said, adding that it now has 40 chapters around the country.

It is estimated that 2,025 Americans are still missing in action in Vietnam, and 8,000 in Korea, said Tom Corey, vice president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, an organization that has been working to locate Americans missing in action.

Mr. Corey, 54, who was paralyzed when he was hit in the neck by a bullet while serving in Vietnam, said he had been lucky enough to return home. “There are other families out there who are still waiting,” he said.

The bikers, many of them men and women in their 50s, rode into town around noon, kicking up smoke and a lot of noisy cheer. People lined along Constitution Avenue to welcome them, grabbing quick handshakes from the veterans, some of whom came in vans and bicycles. Many brought along their grandchildren. Others brought pets, including a parakeet.

Organizers were quick to point out that the rally was not about bikers. “We welcome everyone who sympathizes with our cause all veterans and their families and anyone else who cares,” Mr. Muller said.

Listening to the sound of the bikers riding in, a man who calls himself Mango Mitch, said: “It really sounds like Operation Rolling Thunder when it was carried out.”

Mr. Mitch, 58, served in the Air Force in Vietnam. He came from Maui, Hawaii, with eight others, including Dave Dahlby, 56, who served in the Army. “We flew down to California and rented bikes to come here,” Mr. Dahlby said.

This, he said, was his first time at the rally, and it was a memorable experience. “I feel strongly about this,” he said. “Our country calls people to war and then forgets about them.”

Mingled with the discontent, however, was also a huge dose of patriotism. The bikers’ leather jackets were accessorized with American flags worn as bandannas, neckties, bow ties and wrapped around like skirts.

Stickers reading, “Vietnam veteran and damn proud of it,” were on display, along with badges carrying messages such as “We ride for those who do not speak for themselves.” The veterans wore strings of beads signifying their hearts were still with the soldiers missing in action, and the colors of the Vietnamese flag.

This year, veterans are also demanding that the government pay more attention to their health care.

A booth was set up on the mall to test veterans for Hepatitis C, a disease 40 to 60 percent of veterans contract, said Terry Baker, executive director of Veterans Aimed Toward Awareness, a group that highlights health risks faced by war veterans.

The free test had attracted an “overwhelming” response, said Mr. Baker, who said they had used up most of the 500 kits they had brought along in about four hours. Mr. Baker, a Vietnam veteran, was diagnosed with hepatitis C two years ago, but said he could have had the “silent disease” for over two decades.

Veterans lined up to pay tribute at the Vietnam War Memorial, placing gifts of roses and favorite cigars along the wall and thank you notes for the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam.

Mr. Muller said he was happy with the response to the rally, but added it might have been more pleasant “if the weather was better.”

The weather didn’t keep Gwen Gentry and her family home. The South Carolina native was on her way to the Washington Monument when she saw the riders rolling in.

“We need something like that because a lot of people have forgotten,” she said, looking as excited as her son Scott, 6, who was holding out his hand to the bikers for a shake and covering his ears the next moment.

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