Rolling Thunder has much more to offer than motorcycles on Memorial Day: The nonprofit group provides year-round aid to veterans and their families to help pay for meals, mortgages and other bills to prevent homelessness.
The group’s officials say their charity work has become even more necessary because budget cuts in the Department of Veterans Affairs have limited the agency’s resources and benefits to those who have served their country.
“We should help our own people first. You’re [the VA] telling us you want to help [veterans], and then at the same time you’re making them homeless [with budget cuts]?” said Artie Muller, executive director of Rolling Thunder Inc. “We need to have a fund in the VA as a resource.”
Rolling Thunder, among other advocacy groups, promoted the Missing Service Personnel Act of 1995, which requires military authorities to investigate the circumstances of prisoners of war and troops missing in action and allow their families to review those investigations — an outgrowth of the organization’s efforts to raise awareness of POW/MIA issues since its founding in 1987.
“We never thought this event would last all these years, but we haven’t gotten anyone back from Vietnam alive. The government needs to do everything they can to find out if a person is alive or dead,” said Mr. Muller, himself a Vietnam War veteran.
When thousands of motorcyclists rumble into the D.C. area this weekend for Rolling Thunder’s 28th annual Ride for Freedom, they will be demonstrating their commitment to help veterans and to account for missing soldiers from past and current wars.
Though the POW/MIA group was named after a U.S. bombing campaign during the Vietnam War, motorcycles in the yearly ride create a roaring, thunderous sound, organizers say.
“When the Harleys fire up, you’d think a B-52 raid is going on,” Mr. Muller said, referring to the Air Force’s strategic bomber.
This year’s events include a candlelight vigil Friday evening at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a daylong barbecue Saturday at Fort Washington. Emotions typically range from joy in seeing old comrades to heartache in missing lost soldiers.
“It’s not just a barbecue; it’s about our veterans. This is Memorial Day,” said Nancy Regg, Rolling Thunder’s national spokeswoman. “I’ve been doing this for 19 years, and I still cry at least once. Yes, we have a good time, but there are a lot of people reuniting and getting the welcome home they never got, especially those from Vietnam. This is a brotherhood and a sisterhood. We are family.”
To complete the Memorial Day weekend of events honoring veterans, the Ride for Freedom will leave the north parking lot of the Pentagon at noon Sunday and cruise around the area to demonstrate support for troops.
A speakers program at the Reflecting Pool across from the Lincoln Memorial is scheduled shortly after the ride and will include actor Robert Patrick of the CBS-TV series “Scorpion,” former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and Lynn O’Shea, director of research for the National Alliance of Families.
A musical tribute after the speeches will feature Nancy Sinatra, Ben Mason, Sharon Lee Ruckle, the Sixth Generation, Rockie Lynne and the Loch Rannoch Pipes & Drums band.