- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2012

Rolling Thunder made it to the White House this year, but the experience for the motorcycle-riding patriots was more pro forma photo oppportunity than heartfelt meeting with President Obama, the group says.

“Well, we had a good meeting with his staff and a defense official. But we were supposed to have time with the president,” founder and executive national director Artie Muller told The Washington Times in an interview after the meeting Friday.

“When we were there in the past, the president himself talked to us about the issues that concern us - veterans health care, the fate of prisoners of war, and those missing in action. This was more or less a handshake and a photo op for the White House. And that’s all it was,” Mr. Muller said.

During his time in office, former President George W. Bush met with Mr. Muller, Rolling Thunder officers and Nancy Sinatra, the singer who has long supported the group’s causes. In 2004, for example, Mr. Bush brought the group to the Oval Office for a cordial visit, and he accepted and wore a leather vest emblazoned with the Rolling Thunder logo.

“We went to the White House with all good intentions. We tried. But you know what? This is our country, and we’re tired of veterans getting overlooked and treated badly,” Mr. Muller said.

The 25th annual “Ride for Freedom” on Sunday drew some 500,000 bikers to the nation’s capital this year.

Nancy Regg, who handled the group’s communications, said Rolling Thunder representatives took a brief tour of the White House and met with retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Montague Winfield, deputy assistant director at the Department of Defense for prisoners of war and missing personnel. A photo session with Mr. Obama followed, then the group was ushered out.

“The president was pleased to meet with members of Rolling Thunder,” a senior administration official told The Times afterward. “This administration is committed to the POW/MIA mission as well as to our veterans and their families.”

President Obama also has issued a proclamation recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, announcing a new partnership among federal agencies and local governments, private organizations, and communities to plan future commemorative activities.

Meanwhile, the thought of vets who struggle to afford prescriptions, receive health care and navigate the system is intensely troubling for Mr. Muller. He is also concerned about the greater implications of health care reform.

“Will our vets have to pay more? Will they be paying $36 for a prescription when they should be paying $9? And why should they have to wait forever to get a claim filed,” he asked. “Senators and representatives in both parties are pretty rich. But they’re getting better care than our vets.”

Still, Mr. Muller, an Army vet himself, has a positive message for Americans.

“I want to tell people that this is a heartwarming thing to see the turnout we get here. And here in the capital, Memorial Day is back. It’s real. This a patriotic event for everybody,” he said. “Maybe folks think we’re just dirtbags on motorcyles, but most of us are vets. We love this country and would do anything for it.”

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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