The following is a conversation between former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, and Cheryl Wetzstein, manager of special sections at The Washington Times, about Rolling Thunder, Inc. XXX Ride for Freedom. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You often rode with Rolling Thunder when you were in Congress?
A: Yes. I think I rode with them about a dozen times. … Back then, I wouldn’t ride clear across the country, but I would usually meet one of the groups outside D.C. somewhere and ride in with them. And then join some of the events around D.C. — the Harley-Davidson dealers have barbecues and events for them the day before.
Q: For this 30th anniversary, if you were to share a message with the crowd, what would it be?
A: Well, I think the simple message would be: “Don’t give up. What you started out to do and what you’ve been doing for the last 30 years is working.” Mainly, Rolling Thunder was trying to create a pressure group to inspire Congress to locate prisoners of war and missing in action from any war in the past … They are concerned about all of them, making sure every American is accounted for. So the message is, don’t give up, keep going.
Q: During your time in Congress, you worked on several laws regarding the POW/MIA issue, yes?
A: You know the POW/MIA black flag that you see flying? That was drawn on a cocktail napkin … by a veteran years and years ago. And for some reason, that image sort of caught on with the motorcyclists, and they began to use it as their symbol and it became sort of a national symbol for POW/MIAs. And I introduced a bill several years ago that would make that a national flag that must be flown over all national buildings and national monuments five times a year.
Q: An important step to keep the symbol visible and in front of people. Any thoughts on what else Congress can do today?
A: Try to work with China.
Years ago, I [and other members of Congress] went to Korea to get remains after the Korean War. When North Korea wanted better relations with the United States in trade, they offered to give back some of the thousands that were missing in Korea. … So we went back to Korea … and we helicoptered up to Panmunjom and received four caskets from North Korea. Which we inspected and signed for. (There were skeletons and dog tags and paperwork.) We took those remains back to Hickam Field and had DNA tests done on them to find out just who those four soldiers were. And it turned out, they were not four soldiers — they were a whole bunch of soldiers. What they had done was kill some Americans and just stuck them in a hole, and years later, when they wanted better relations with America, they dug up those bones … No [respect] for human life.
I hope to heck that [President] Trump has enough influence on the president of China, that China recognizes that it’s in their best interest to get some peaceful solution too. Because they will be in a world of hurt if [a conflict] starts over there.
Q: That leads to my last question: What can this White House do that you think would be good for the POW/MIA issue?
A: I think they need to work on better relations with China. I think China really holds the key because China is like the patron saint of North Korea — something like 80 percent of North Korea’s exports go into China. And [China] has already cut off [North Korea’s] coal as part of their first step towards reining them in a little bit. But I don’t know if that’s going to work or not … That Kim Jung Un … I don’t know of anybody who can actually try to reason with him. But I think China has a better chance of exerting pressure on him than any other nation, and China has an interest in this because if a war started over there, there’s going to be a mass exodus into China by scared-to-death North Koreans. … So it’s in China’s best interest to find some solution.
Q: Does China have influence over Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam?
A: I think they do, though trade. Many of the weapons in those three countries come from China (and Russia). But I think there’s a direct connection with all the smaller countries around China. … And the flip side of that coin is that China is reliant on the United States for a good portion of their economy … and if something went wrong in the trade relations between the United States and China, there would be a hell of a bunch of Chinese factories closing … China doesn’t want that.
Q: Final thoughts?
A: People in Washington need to care about [the POW/MIA issue] and we need to care about it because it could be your son. Or my brother. Or your dad. We need to personalize it and recognize that all those missing in action and all the POWS had a family, and a future and a dream for their life as a free American — and they’re gone. And I think we owe it to the families and American history to do our best for them.
• Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, served in the U.S. House and Senate between 1987 and 2005, and became chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Now on the Council of Chiefs for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Mr. Campbell, 84, is an Air Force veteran who was stationed in Korea during the war and is assisting the effort to establish a National Native American Veterans Memorial. An avid motorcyclist, Mr. Campbell was inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2001. He has a jewelry business, a consulting business, and he and wife Linda raise quarter horses on their Colorado ranch.