- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

More than 500,000 people are expected to attend the 16th annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally tomorrow to commemorate Memorial Day.

The “Ride to the Wall” rally will start at the Pentagon and end at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Participants will remember military men and women who died in action and call for the return of all Americans missing in action and prisoners of war.

“It’s a very emotional Sunday,” said Artie Muller, the group’s president. “We all lost a lot of guys fighting in different places.”

Rolling Thunder asserts that more than 2,000 American soldiers are still missing in action in Vietnam and that 8,000 are still missing in Korea. They also say 41 are missing from the 1991 Persian Gulf war and 14 in Bosnia from the U.S.-led intervention in the early 1990s.

The Defense Department lists 1,208 servicemen missing in the Vietnam War, 4,825 in the Korean War, 12 in the Persian Gulf war, and none in the war on terrorism and the war against Iraq. All of the missing have been declared dead or are presumed to be dead.

Spokesmen for Rolling Thunder said they are gratified that American military men and women taken prisoner in Iraq in the latest conflict returned home safely.

“We got live American POWs back in this past war. We couldn’t ask for much more than that,” Mr. Muller said.

But recent events haven’t slowed the group’s cause. Organizers of Rolling Thunder, named for the sound of their motorcycles, expect about 500,000 to attend this year’s rally.

Mr. Muller, 47, and a friend started Rolling Thunder in 1987 and organized their first event on Memorial Day weekend in 1988. The attendance grew from 5,000 that year to 300,000 last year.

Rolling Thunder has three goals. The group wants more investigations into the cases of those American soldiers left behind in past wars. They also want veterans to have easier access to treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals, and they want the public to know that this weekend is about remembering those who fought for freedom.

“I want people to think about freedom and the people who suffered so they could live the way they do,” Mr. Muller said. “People forget too easily what it costs for their freedom, and they don’t appreciate it enough — that veterans have died for them so they can do what they want.”

Those participating in the rally will begin gathering in the Pentagon’s North Lot at 8 a.m. tomorrow. At noon they will ride to the National Mall, where Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi will address them. Nancy Sinatra and Billy Ray Cyrus will entertain the crowd.

Rolling Thunder has more than 7,000 members and 68 national chapters. Members are not required to be military veterans or even motorcycle riders, but many are both. Every year on the way to the Pentagon, motorists honk their horns in support or stop to talk to the riders at rest stops.

Mr. Muller said he expects that patriotism to continue this year. “I think patriotism in the country is still high, compared to what it usually is, and I think it will continue through the weekend,” he said.

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