- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2012

It was just a parade.

For years, that’s what Cottage City resident Wanda Prue thought about the thousands of motorcycle riders who descended on the District in late May.

Sure, a lot of people waved and cheered, and it fostered a sense of camaraderie with her fellow bikers out of a Harley Davidson store near the District, but it wasn’t until a year ago when a friend encouraged her to join a local Rolling Thunder chapter that Ms. Prue, 65, finally learned the meaning behind the roar of the bike engines.

“I found out it’s a protest,” Ms. Prue said. “My era has Vietnam veterans. I see what they’ve gone through. I see how we as Rolling Thunder members appreciate the people and try to help families, and just do everything the country should be doing and doesn’t.”

Beginning Friday, the D.C. area is set to welcome roughly a half-million motorcycle riders for the 25th Rolling Thunder, an annual event to recognize prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.

Named after the deep rumble caused by thousands of motorcycles wending their way through D.C. streets, the weekend-long event includes concerts, vigils, memorial services and speeches.

“It’s definitely going to be one of those weekends when you take a big, deep breath on Sunday,” said Richard Hawkins, president of Virginia’s Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 in Winchester, who is helping out with stage security this year.

“It’s nice to see who they bring to the stage to talk about different issues and where we stand now. Some speakers talk about what they went through during their part of the war. It’s amazing some of the crap those poor fellows went through. Most don’t realize what those guys gave up.”

On Sunday, the parents of Bowe Bergdahl, who’s been held by the Taliban for nearly 1,000 days, are scheduled to speak near the Lincoln Memorial.

“They’re very modest people, very down-to-earth people whose son just happens to be a POW,” Rolling Thunder Inc. spokeswoman Nancy Regg said of the private couple, who are traveling from their home in Idaho. “They’re coming because of our POW message. They’re here to back us and we’re here to back them.”

The Bergdahls are scheduled to speak during the motorcycle ride through the District. The ride usually takes all day, as hundreds of thousands of riders make their way from the Pentagon to West Potomac Park.

Arlington County Police announced that Washington Boulevard would be closed from Interstate 395 to the Memorial Bridge between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Though the ride is the most well known and well attended part of the Memorial Day weekend, there are a number of other events throughout the weekend, including a trip Friday morning by Maryland’s Rolling Thunder Chapter 1 to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

According to ride leader Dale Williams, the chapter has been visiting injured soldiers for two years. The goal, he said, “is to let them know people are out there that care. We support them and want them to feel like they’re not just in this on their own.”

Friday night, a candlelight vigil is scheduled for 9 p.m. at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and on Saturday there is a daylong concert, including an appearance by Rolling Thunder founder Ray Manzo, and a performance by actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, named after Mr. Sinise’s character in the movie “Forrest Gump” who loses his legs during the Vietnam War.

Rolling Thunder participants plan to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at 11 a.m. Monday, followed by the National Memorial Day Parade at 2 p.m.

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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