For me, this annual POW/MIA demonstration is all about doing what is right for the men and women who were sent to war and never came home and the families left behind. We owe nothing less than accountability and closure.
I stumbled upon this amazing gathering of Rolling Thunder, Inc., by accident while stationed at the Pentagon.
In 2001, I was a partner with the Korean War Commemoration Committee, and spent three days near the Korean War Veterans Memorial giving long-overdue appreciation and educating the public about it. Some call it the “forgotten war,” but I call it the “forgotten victory.”
The following year, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I returned to the memorial sites in full dress and aimlessly walked around, thanking veterans for their service, families for their sacrifice, and thinking about how their heroic actions will fade as our veterans pass away.
That is what inspired me to do more, and as I got closer to the sea of bikes that were passing by, I wondered how could I thank them now — especially some might not be with us next year.
I remembered from years of serving on military funeral details, we had rendered a final salute to each service member, regardless of rank. So why not do it now? We salute our president, I thought, so why can’t I salute a patriot?
I marched into the middle of the street and popped up the salute. The riders passed by me on both sides, and soon I could see tears running down some of their cheeks. I was reaching them.
Fatigue started to set in, but there was a sacred connection made with each biker. At the end of my first salute in 2002, hundreds of veterans thanked me for giving them a “welcome home” they never received. Instantly, this became my moral post.
The first few years, no one knew my name, and I liked that. Then they started to learn my name, and it was a pleasant thing to hear them holler as they rode by, but all of a sudden I felt the weight of what was expected of me year after year.
I have since had the Missing Man Table in front of me, and veterans have come to stand with me — I put them in front of me in uniform, to make it even more special for the veterans and riders. Last year, I got married in the middle of the street, and my wife Lorraine stood with me for hours in her wedding dress. Later, a widow got off her bike and hugged Lorraine and told her she was standing for her and all military wives!
The crazier our society gets, with people only caring about themselves, I feel we are losing something that made our nation great, and that is respect and compassion for each other. My salute emulates those things, and I hope to inspire people to come back to the center of the road and unite. I also hope my salute resonates with our older veterans as more of an apology from a once-ungrateful nation than a welcome home and a “job well done”!
I feel my existence as the “Saluting Marine” is no more or less important than everyone else that dedicates their time in communities all over the country and makes the ride to Washington, D.C., to participate. We are all in this together, and with all of us standing tall we are the voice that our elected officials and the world must listen to on behalf of the Cause.
• Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Chambers, who this year marks his 16th time saluting participants for hours at Rolling Thunder, Inc.’s Ride for Freedom, shares his stories at www.thesalutingmarine.com.