- - Friday, May 28, 2004

President Bush will be the first to meet privately with leaders of Rolling Thunder Inc. when the group’s 200,000 motorcycle riders rumble into downtown tomorrow for their 17th annual Memorial Day weekend rally.

“This is the first time we have a personal invitation from the president to sit down and talk about our issues,” said Artie M. Muller, president and co-founder of Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit dedicated to publicizing the plight of American prisoners of war left behind in all the nation’s conflicts.

“In all the years we have been doing this,” Mr. Muller said, “this is the first administration that has been working with us.”

They will meet at the White House, where Mr. Bush will deliver a message either by phone or by tape to the larger gathering on the Mall, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.

“He’s proud of what they represent, and they’ve become an important part of our Memorial Day remembrances,” Mr. Duffy said.

Joining Mr. Muller at the White House will be three other Rolling Thunder officers and a group of supporters, including former Miss America Heather French Henry, 15-year-old veterans rights advocate Nikki Mendicino and entertainer Nancy Sinatra.

Miss Sinatra also will perform at the rally along with ‘60’s pop-rock band Paul Revere and the Raiders and county singer Gordon Painter.

Since 1987, Rolling Thunder members have roared into the District every Memorial Day weekend aboard their motorcycles to draw attention to POWs and other troops who remain listed as missing in action from conflicts dating back to World War II.

The group, which also lobbies lawmakers on a variety of veterans issues, took its name from Operation Rolling Thunder — the United States’ extensive bombing campaign during the Vietnam War.

“When you ride a whole bunch of Harleys together with straight pipes, it sounds like a B-52 carpet bombing,” said Mr. Muller, who earned the Combat Infantry Badge serving in the Army’s 4th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War.

The group’s first motorcycle parade consisted of about 2,600 bikers. The organization now includes 80 chapters and more than 8,000 members. Tomorrow, they expect 200,000 riders from all over the world to line up for the parade, which culminates at the rally at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Park.

“We do this to remind everybody that we do have a lot of service personnel that were captive and are still captive, and for some of them there is a good possibility that they are still alive,” said Mr. Muller, adding that the effort also aims to protect POWs from the Iraq war.

The bikers will gather tomorrow morning in the Pentagon parking lot. The procession will enter the city by the Arlington Memorial Bridge at noon and travel east on Constitution Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue.

The parade will circle through downtown on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Third Street, C Street and Sixth Street before ending at the corner of Independence Avenue and Ohio Drive at FDR Park across from the Korean War Memorial.

“The main thing with the bikes is to let the government know we are there, and they have to pay attention,” Mr. Muller said. “If we went into Washington, D.C., with a couple of hundred thousand cars, they would just say it was a traffic jam.”

James G. Lakely contributed to this report.


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