The 30th annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle demonstration took place in the capital on Sunday as part of weekend celebrations ahead of Memorial Day, raising awareness of the needs of veterans across the country and calling for the recognition of American prisoners of war and those missing in action.
Thousands of riders, enthusiasts and veterans donned leather jackets with patches commemorating their motorcycle clubs, past rides, maps of areas of service — including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia — and the names of fallen soldiers.
Bikers from across the U.S. gathered early Sunday at the Pentagon before heading out toward the National Mall. They rode down Constitution Ave. and Independence Ave, their engines adding a soundtrack to the rainstorms that intermittently doused spectators.
It was the first ride in Rolling Thunder for Gene Lambert, who has a brother entombed in Arlington National Cemetery. “Lesley Stephen Lambert he received a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. He was a career soldier and served in Vietnam,” Mr. Lambert said. He and his wife rode their respective Harley Davidsons from Delaware.
Ashley Lambert fought back tears in describing the feeling of participating. “Very awe-inspiring. Awesome,” she said. “As soon as we saw the Korean Memorial, I broke down. It was great to see the community outpour of support. I’m so proud of my country right now.”
The most important thing, Mr. Lambert added, is to never forget the service of the soldiers. “Never forget, never leave a man or woman behind,” he said.
Rolling Thunder was founded in 1987 by Ray Manzo and Artie Muller, Vietnam veterans who wanted to, literally, make noise about the plight of prisoners of war and the fate of soldiers deemed MIA. The first run took place in 1988 with around 2,500 motorists.
The bikers are politically active, responsible for the Missing Service Personnel Act of 1993, pressuring the government to continue to recover the remains of soldiers from previous wars for burial in the U.S.
Their website states that there are tens of thousands of soldiers still unaccounted for, including 73,057 from World War II, 7,747 from the Korean War, 1,611 from Vietnam, 126 missing soldiers from the Cold War and five from the Gulf Wars.
The ride comes at a time when the Department of Veterans Affairs is under pressure to repair relationships with veterans angry over administrative failures that have impacted access to health care and emergency services for hundreds of thousands.
In April the department announced a new web interface for veterans to research and assess quality of care of VA hospitals in their area — allowing them to see wait times and view reviews of hospitals from other veterans.
“There’s hardly an American who doesn’t know a veteran. There’s no American for which improving the care for veterans is not of the utmost importance,” Dr. Poonam Alaigh, the acting undersecretary for health, said during a demonstration of the interface in April.
David Driver, a Vietnam vet who has participated in Rolling Thunder for 10 years, said he and his friends made the drive down from southern Pennsylvania. “We want to try and prove a point [that] Vietnam wasn’t a policing, it was a war, [and] we would like to bring our boys home,” he said.
People crowded the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to listen to musical performances by country rockers Rockie Lynn and Gordon Painter and addresses from retired Adm. James Aloysius “Ace” Lyons Jr.; Tom Porter, legislative director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA); “Terminator 2” actor Robert Patrick; and Anoop Prakash, director of marketing for Harley Davidson and a retired Marine.