Listen. It’s the collective roar of motorcycles on a mission, their faithful riders on the same route to the same cause: to draw public attention to the needs of military veterans, and the unanswered question surrounding prisoners of war and those still missing in action. Welcome to “Rolling Thunder” — the perfect name for one of those most patriotic events on the planet. These riders did roll, and there was thunder during the 29th “Ride for Freedom,” on Sunday in the nation’s capital.
“Never forget all of our prisoners of war and those still missing in action from all wars, and never forget our veterans of all wars. That’s our message, and that’s our mission,” said Artie Muller, who served in the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division in the jungles of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at age 20. Years later, he went on to found the feisty group that took its name from a combat operation.
Operation Rolling Thunder was the U.S. military code name for the long-term bombing of North Vietnamese targets in the mid-1960s.
This year, the ride had added star power. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made an appearance at the big event in mid-afternoon near the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. Wearing his signature crimson “Make America Great Again” baseball hat, Mr. Trump vowed to “rebuild” the U.S. military, tend to the needs of vets and to shore up the nation’s porous borders.
“Thousands of people are dying, waiting in line to see a doctor. That is not going to happen anymore,” he told the crowd, also reassuring one and all that he still planned to build a wall on the U.S./Mexico border.
The candidate is a favorite among many in the biker demographic — and the feeling is mutual. Mr. Trump has praised the riders as both loyal Americans and a canny and formidable political force and will clarify his plans to give charitable funds to veterans groups in an announcement on Tuesday.
There was much leading up to the moment. Hundreds of thousands of bikers assembled in the vast parking lot of the Pentagon on Sunday morning for the five-hours of organization to coordinate the procession — row after row of motorcycles that range from full-dress, old school Harley-Davidsons to impeccably chromed choppers, tricked-out “trikes” and racing bikes. Some folks spent days getting to this rendezvous point, their cross-country routes marked with American flags donated by the American Legion. The actual ride is only about 20 minutes, start to finish: The men and women of Rolling Thunder fired up their faithful steeds, said a little prayer and began the solemn journey across Memorial Bridge.
Rolling Thunder, the organization, is run entirely by volunteers in 90 chartered chapters across the nation. Anyone can join up; a motorcycle is not required. Though there’s time spent talking over favorite rides and maintenance tips, this is a civic-minded organization that stages local and regional raffles and rallies to raise money through a separate charitable division for disabled and homeless vets, rehabilitation centers, military families in need, kids who could use a new toy or two, and senior citizens.
There was some talk that maybe this year’s event would be Mr. Muller’s last. The planning and safe coordination is a monumental task; estimates for the number of motorcycles arriving from every state in the union and several foreign countries for the annual ride range up to 500,000. Not to worry.
“No, this is not Artie’s last ride,” says a close associate. “He’ll be showing up for Rolling Thunder until the day he dies.”
Mr. Muller is adamant that the ride is “a demonstration, not a parade.” It is a very personal cause. He has never shaken off past intelligence reports suggesting that American prisoners of war had been spotted in remote locations “living in dismal captivity.” Those reports helped fuel the fire when he founded the organization in 1987 with Ray Manzo, a Marine Corps corporal and fellow Vietnam veteran. Both were inspired by visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The passion is still there.
“I don’t think anyone in Washington, D.C., really cares about investigating the live POWs that the government knows were left behind. Their main concern is keeping politically appointed, well-paying jobs long enough to retire. What a sad government we have when they don’t care enough to find out what happened to the troops they sent to fight foreign wars,” Mr. Muller said in a message to Rolling Thunder membership.
“Remember the history of World War II, the last war we fought to really win. If our WWII troops had today’s rules of engagement, they would have lost the war. We better pray for a new administration in the 2016 election that will follow the Constitution of the United States and worry about America, our people and our troops first.”
Mr. Muller has also called upon the White House on multiple occasions. In past years, former President George W. Bush welcomed Rolling Thunder members — Harleys and all — in the driveway of the White House. The event became somewhat of a ritual over the years; Mr. Bush was finally inducted into Rolling Thunder as an honorary member and accepted a cowhide biker vest.
President Obama has also met with the group’s representatives during his term of office; the encounters were described as “brief but cordial.”
The organization is up to the moment on legislation about the issue, monitoring the complicated congressional wars over proper funding for veterans’ benefits and medical care.
This weekend’s activities got underway Friday with a formal “blessing of the bikes” at Washington National Cathedral, followed by a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A barbecue supplied by a very supportive local Harley-Davidson dealer took place on Saturday, followed by a major evening meeting and cheerful banquet at a Virginia hotel — half reunion and half business meeting. The call to assemble at the Pentagon the next morning is early, about 7 a.m. It is a group effort. Instructions to participants traditionally specify “no attitude.” And helmets are required.
“We are committed to helping American veterans from all wars,” said Mr. Muller. “Everyone donates his or her time because they believe in the POW/MIA issue.”