- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally roared into the District yesterday with typical uninhibited patriotism and with a special mission this year of asking U.S. leaders to try harder to find and help servicemen who are missing in action or are prisoners of war.

“I hope President Bush is listening to us today,” said Artie M. Muller, 61, a former Army sergeant wounded in Vietnam who organized about 2,300 motorcyclists for the first Rolling Thunder in 1987.

Organizers of the 19th annual event estimated that 350,000 riders from across the country came to the District, where they were joined by riders from as far away as Australia, Canada and Europe.

“This is probably the best of all the years. We got up here early,” said Don Sortino, 66, a Vietnam War Army veteran from Woodbridge, Va., whose wife, Irene, rode along on his Harley-Davidson.

The riders gathered in the Pentagon parking lots by 7 a.m. for the main events, which included their trip across the Memorial Bridge, then up and down iconic Constitution and Independence avenues Northwest before assembling on the Mall for speeches in front of the Lincoln Memorial and between the Vietnam and Korean War memorials.

“We Ride For Those Who Can’t” and “Stand Up For Our Future, Your Children” were among the signs waved along the route.

Other signs stated “Return Our POW-MIA’s From All Wars” and “God Keep Them Safe Till We Get Them Home.”

Mr. Muller, of Neshanic Station, N.J., told those gathered on the Mall that groups formed since the early days of Rolling Thunder have been doing “a great job finding remains.”

He said the groups have found and identified remains from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. However, he urged U.S. officials to “cut somewhere else, not from veterans issues” to help the groups because they are now short of money “to continue work as they have.”

Heather French, Miss America 2000 and a former Miss Kentucky, was among a procession of speakers who also asked for more help for veterans.

Rolling Thunder Chairman Michael Cobb, an ex-Marine from Clinton, N.J., who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, said the group is a nonprofit with a major focus to “bring public awareness about the POW-MIA situation.”

The rumble of passing motorcycles continued throughout the formal program. And the 86-degree temperatures forced many riders and spectators to shed their customary leather jackets. Their T-shirts and leather vests were emblazoned with Rolling Thunder logos, patriotic signs and military medals.

One sign declared: “Bob Hope — A True American.”

Metropolitan and U.S. Park police blocked intersections along the route and reported no problems.

However, the number of riders in the region delayed other visitors and residents trying to get to work and other places.

Seats were reserved next to the speakers’ platform for “Blue Star Mothers,” who have children in the military service, and “Gold Star Mothers,” whose sons and daughters died while in service.

Mr. Muller said President Bush had promised to work with Rolling Thunder, but his staff has not cooperated in arranging a meeting over the past five months.

Much of the criticism was aimed at Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson. They said veterans are waiting five or six months for special care and that he is not replacing doctors, nurses and staff who retire.

Mr. Muller also said it was “totally incompetent” to allow an agency employee to take home computerized data that included personal information on roughly 26.5 million veterans. The computer data were stolen May 3 by a burglar and have not been recovered.

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