- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The stars and stripes rule the day, and a million chrome-spoked wheels turn with a single purpose. Rolling Thunder has arrived in the nation’s capital for the 32nd annual “Ride for Freedom,” a massive display of power, pride and patriotism meant to honor and acknowledge veterans who fought our wars, soldiers missing in action, and the POWs who never made it home.

It is the last massive demonstration to be staged in the nation’s capital by U.S. Army veteran Artie Muller, the determined stalwart who organized the first ride in 1988 with fellow vet Ray Manzo. The pair named their demonstration after “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the U.S. military code name for the long-term bombing of North Vietnamese targets in the mid-1960s. Across the decades, the event grew from a few thousand riders to some 500,000 devotees including lawmakers, military brass, politicians and famous faces — from Sarah Palin to “Terminator 2” star Robert Patrick, who has confirmed he’ll be on ride No. 32 this weekend.

The occasion has become such a signature event that it has been featured in multiple travel guides — often deemed historic or uniquely American.

Contrary to media reports and rumor, this is not the “last” ride, however.

“We’re not going anywhere. We’re just going nationwide,” Mr. Muller tells The Washington Times.

The shift in focus is a practical decision. The sheer size of the demonstration has become problematic for the all-volunteer staff. Production costs for the behemoth gathering have soared over $200,000 while logistical challenges have multiplied. The combination has brought change — and a commonsense solution for the future.

Make it local.

“We will continue the POW/MIA mission through our 90 Rolling Thunder state chapters across America, coordinating demonstrations starting on the 2020 Memorial Day weekend,” Mr. Muller said in a letter to his big flock after reaching the decision to curtail the massive ride in Washington in favor of smaller events.

He predicts that increased localized attendance and regionalized media coverage will draw more attention to the cause that is of visceral importance to him.

Mr. Muller served in the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division in the jungles of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at age 20. But he has never stopped wondering about the warriors who served with him or those who stepped up in another place, in another war.

“Even when I was in the infantry I always thought about those who got taken prisoner, those who were left behind. I think of the live POWs. I felt that if I was ever captured, I would want people to fight to get me home again. I’ve never, ever forgotten how I felt back then,” Mr. Muller said.

His passion and his mission has not changed since those days.

“Never forget all of our prisoners of war and those still missing in action from all wars. Never forget our veterans of all wars. That’s our message, and that’s our mission,” said Mr. Muller, who had the foresight to trademark the Rolling Thunder name decades ago and establish an active charitable organization that continues to look after the welfare of vets, active duty military and their families.

More than 82,000 American service members are still missing, with 75% of them in the Indo-Pacific and 41,000 presumed lost at sea, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Those with a similar cause have nothing but encouragement for Muller and his clan.

“The millions who’ve rode in this iconic demonstration over the past three decades were amazingly successful in keeping our missing on the minds of elected officials and the American people. But the job is not done. Clear signs surfaced this year that members of Congress are, once again, forgetting the 80,000-plus American military men and women still missing in action,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director of AMVETS.

He publicly vowed this year to keep the “vital demonstration” in Washington.

“This needs to continue in some way. AMVETS is preparing to do whatever is necessary to ensure those who want to make the pilgrimage to Washington in 2020 and beyond find a meaningful, well-organized demonstration. It won’t likely have the same name, but we aren’t giving up the mission. AMVETS will work with Rolling Thunder to keep the promise that we will never forget,” Mr. Chenelly said.

Meanwhile, the Rolling Thunder traditions continue. There will be a blessing of the bikes at the Washington National Cathedral, a candlelight vigil for the fallen, two solemn wreath layings, a free barbecue, plus a musical program to honor vets.

And the ultimate reality? The riders will gather at staging areas by the Pentagon Sunday at dawn — where it will take five hours to assemble the biker battalion into formations of four, rolling out one after another for the 20-minute ride across the Potomac River to the National Mall.

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