Independence Day has fireworks, Christmas has carolers, but the soundtrack to Memorial Day features the thunder of a half-million roaring motorcycles.
This weekend is the 27th annual Rolling Thunder event, an enormous rally that brings motorcycle riders from across the country to the D.C. area, where they cruise around the Mall to raise awareness for veterans, prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
“This isn’t a ride. This is a demonstration,” said Rolling Thunder national spokeswoman Nancy Regg. “This is not a biker event. There’s no picnic at the end, It’s to show the government that we’re still here, we want answers, and we want our veterans taken care of.”
Named for the low rumble created by the thousands of motorcycles weaving their way through D.C. streets, the event highlights the work still to be done to bring home POWs and MIA troops, or at the very least provide some closure for their families.
“We have made tremendous strides in helping our veterans, our POWs and MIAs,” Ms. Regg said. “Almost monthly a family gets closure — as far back as World War II and Korea. So we are getting closure for families and that’s really important.”
That’s where the behemoth rolling demonstration comes in, explained Edward Rutledge, co-chairman of the government affairs arm of Rolling Thunder.
Motorcycles are assembling in the north and south Pentagon parking lots from 7 a.m. Sunday, with an anticipated start at 12 p.m. The speakers’ program is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m.
“If we came in cars, D.C. police would just say it’s a traffic jam,” Mr. Rutledge said. “Bikes let you know we are here. It’s impressive. People have to stop and say, ‘Hey, Rolling Thunder is here. What’s it all about?’”
While Sunday is a day to watch and cheer as more than 500,000 motorcycles pass by the monuments and memorials, that doesn’t mean attention to military members should stop after the ride is over.
Mr. Rutledge’s arm of Rolling Thunder follows the various pieces of legislation important to the organization during each congressional session.
Legislation on the group’s radar this year includes House and Senate resolutions that support leaving no member of the armed forced unaccounted for as the country withdraws from Afghanistan, as well as a Senate bill that directs the architect of the Capitol to place a chair on the Capitol grounds in remembrance of POWs and MIAs.
“It’s very, very important we understand POW/MIA issues,” Mr. Rutledge said. “Get some of the legislation passed into law, bring them all home and concentrate on all vets, too.”
For the past quarter-century, Rolling Thunder has highlighted the plight of Vietnam veterans, and relied on support of their advocates to bolster the number of riders.
Ms. Regg pointed out, however, that each year Rolling Thunder ages, so does everyone involved.
That means it’s about time the next generation began to take up the reins, and Nikki Mendicino is one of those to do it.
This will be Ms. Mendicino’s 15th Rolling Thunder, and she’ll be one of the event’s featured speakers.
At 25, she has attended the rolling rally more than half her life. She first became interested in veterans’ causes when she was introduced to a World War II veteran who spoke at her grade school.
She said in recent years, more veterans from the nearby hospitals have come to watch Rolling Thunder, many of them returning to watch the next year.
“I think there definitely needs to be a push of younger members, getting the younger generations out there,” she said.
Ms. Mendicino said the way to do that is exposure. Whether that means introducing a veteran to a classroom or bringing one’s children to a rally like Rolling Thunder.
“It’s not that the younger generations don’t care, they don’t know,” she said.
Ms. Mendicino’s fellow speakers on Sunday include Navy veteran Shane Osborn, a candidate for Nebraska state treasurer; Air Force veteran Myke Shelby, owner of Harley-Davidson outlet in San Diego; and Lynn O’Shea, research director for the National Alliance of Families.
Rolling Thunder will likely be the most attended event of the weekend, but others are scheduled for the holiday. At 9 p.m. Friday a candlelight vigil is scheduled at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Harley-Davidson of Washington is hosting a barbecue from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and a visit to the U.S. Navy Memorial is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday.
“There’s a lot of real personal moments,” Ms. Regg said. “You cry, you laugh, you cry some more, laugh some more. You see people you haven’t seen in a year, meet new friends, meet old friends. It’s just an amazing weekend.”