- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

The ground shook from a deep-throated rumble yesterday as thousands of motorbikes rolled into Washington for the first Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom since the war in Iraq.

“What you hear is the heartbeat of these people,” said 53-year-old Elizabeth Friend, whose stepson has just returned from Iraq. “Without these guys, we’d have nothing.”

Michael Friend, 23, a U.S. Marine as was his father, who fought in Vietnam, returned from Kuwait and Iraq on May 16.

On the back of his pickup flew a stained and tattered flag that flew amid the dust of al-Kut, outside Baghdad.

“This is of great importance,” he said, as thousands of bikers from around the country gathered outside the Pentagon at dawn before the annual pilgrimage to the Reflecting Pool and the Korean and Vietnam war memorials. “I still have a lot of friends over there, and they are in potential danger.”

Some of the thousands of riders looked much older than they did when in Vietnam. Their ponytails are now white, their stomachs are bigger and their beards are gray.

But their feelings about the Vietnam War seem unchanged.

“We want a full accounting for all the prisoners of war and those missing in action,” said Art Foss, who spent 18 months in Vietnam.

He said about 1,850 soldiers remain unaccounted for there.

The ride, in its 16th year, is named after the massive but unsuccessful U.S. bombing operation against North Vietnam in the late 1960s known as Rolling Thunder.

Reports of heavy casualties after the bombing caused support to dwindle in the U.S.

Since then, Rolling Thunder chapters around the country have tried to account for the dead, the missing and prisoners of war.

Among those who arrived in Washington yesterday was 80-year-old Pauline Yeakley, whose son, Robin, was shot down in a helicopter June 11, 1972.

“He has never been accounted for,” said Miss Yeakley, known as a Gold Star mother and dressed all in white amid the backdrop of dark, rain-streaked skies.

“All I [had] was a piece of paper … but in April they told me they think they have found where his helicopter went down. They’ve come up with a few things like a watch and boot soles,” she continued before a veteran handed her a red rose.

“It makes it easier to know that people do care,” Miss Yeakley said before climbing onto the back of a big, red Honda motorcycle. “I needed this.”

Among the riders was a small group of Navajo Indians making a memorial run for Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa — killed in Iraq and thought to be the first American Indian woman to die fighting for the United States.

A dream-catcher, designed and painted in her honor, was taped onto the windshield of Leon Curley’s black Harley Davidson.

“We’re taking the dream catcher to Arlington cemetery,” said Mr. Curley, who claimed his great-grandfather was the last scout to work for Kit Carson and is buried in the national cemetery. He also said his Navajo uncle, Emerson Morton, has his name inscribed with thousands of others on the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.

A decal on the back of a rider’s helmet seemed to express the feelings of many veterans:

“The price of freedom is written on the wall.”

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