Ride for freedom

A pilgrimage to the nation’s capitol

Washington D.C., May 22–25—It’s Memorial Day weekend and I decided to visit a couple of friends. I silently walked by the thousands of graves that lay across Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of bikes can be heard in the distance partaking in the weekend’s events. Some are even present along the roads in the cemetery. I know Chuck’s general location is in Section 64. I was there when he was laid to rest, but finding him among the hundreds of new headstones requires a white folded paper that I tightly clutched. With it, I quickly locate his stone. I uttered a few quiet expletives and told him I missed him.

I had known Chuck for over a dozen years. He was that oddball standout soldier and leader who you could always count on for a laugh, but yet was deadly serious about his profession. He was an Infantry soldier who took no exception of his responsibilities. He epitomized that old Army characteristic of “Mission first, troops always.” His boys loved him and he reciprocated in kind. Sometimes with sweat equity and sometimes with plain cunning, he always finished his mission. I think the headstones in Chuck’s sector were more keenly aligned by his mere presence. I could almost hear his booming voice, “All right, cupcakes, dress and cover!” putting his men in precise formation.

With Chuck’s visit finished, I moved on to see another friend, Doug. Doug was in Section 60. This section is what is called “America’s saddest acres.” It is here that service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest. Most of the ground is freshly turned and the grass is new. Families and friends gather among the graves and mourn, laugh, cry and remember. I found Doug’s headstone and also issue him a few choice expletives. I had not known Doug long. I had met him on my protracted tour in Iraq as a contractor. We’d shared a few meals and talked about our families and futures. In my mind, sharing the time there easily made us friends. Doug was the ultimate warrior. He was a Marine officer who loved battle and especially loved leading his Marines into a fight. No matter how bad things might seem in a firefight, Doug always knew that he and his warriors would overcome and win. Doug died leading Iraqi and American forces into a fight, trying to minimize the risk to those he was in charge of. When word of his death came across the radio, the battle assessment was relayed: “There were a few wounded and one martyr.”

The Wall—honor and remember
On Friday night, the air was humid as the crowds began to gather at The Wall, more formally known as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There were many Vietnam vets mixed in with the crowds. Most wore vests and shirts displaying their affiliation with Rolling Thunder and other veterans groups. There were many reunions and memories being openly shared. Some stood in front of the dark stone panels of The Wall and quietly reflected. Others could not contain their emotions and openly wept. It was a collective experience that was emotionally charged.

At 9:00 p.m., bagpipes began playing. A small formation of Vietnam vets moved along the walkway in front of The Wall, one bearing a torch. The bagpipes followed closely behind. The crowds were silent, many holding small chemical light sticks. These modern day candles dotted the area like thousands of hovering fireflies. A small simple ceremony was conducted at the apex of The Wall and concluded with the bag pipes playing a haunting version of Amazing Grace as the small formation moved out and away. In the distance, out toward the Washington Monument, were giant flags. One was the Stars and Stripes and the other was the POW/MIA flag hosted by the Massachusetts Chapter of Rolling Thunder. These seemed to punctuate the emotional vigil.

Saturday arrived with the opening of Thunder Alley along Constitution Avenue in D.C. Thunder Alley is strategically located for ease of access for all to buy official Rolling Thunder-related paraphernalia, as well as biker-related items such as leather, clothing and great-tasting food. Another official sponsor location for Rolling Thunder was at H-D of Washington. Located in Ft. Washington, Maryland, it was a relatively easy 30-minute ride from downtown. H-D of Washington was running a very organized open house complete with guided parking, road guards, vendors and food. The mood was festive, supported by the great weather that Mother Nature had decided to provide. A key factor to enhancing the open house was the free food being offered. A hearty barbecue sandwich with fixings was available for as long as supplies lasted, which was up until 2:30 that afternoon. The addition of a live band, assorted activities for kids, refreshments such as tropical smoothies and thousands of bikes in the area made this a definite must-go-to location. The festivities at H-D of Washington began winding down around 4:00 p.m. with most folks heading out to local watering holes, hotels or the Rolling Thunder National Open House. Other venues in the metro area that hosted well-attended activities included Old Glory H-D in Laurel, Maryland, and Patriot H-D in Fairfax, Virginia. Having so many venues supported the large influx of bikers into the region, which made it easy to find things to do and places to see.

The Rolling Thunder National Open House was held in the main banquet room of the Crystal City Hyatt Regency. The banquet was well attended with a standing-room-only crowd. Artie Muller, the chairman of Rolling Thunder, gave an impassioned speech on the issue of unaccounted prisoners of war and warriors missing in action (POW/MIA). Artie’s message was simple: “They fought the [Vietnam] war so we could live the way we do, and it’s about time our government did something on that issue.”

Rolling Thunder has evolved beyond just POW/MIA issues. The organization strongly monitors and lobbies for all veterans to have better health care, benefits and recognition. The strength of this organization was evident throughout. A highly emotional moment during the banquet was the presentation of the new Honor and Remember Flag to three mothers who had lost sons in battle in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The red and white background with centered gold star flag was conceived as a symbol to “acknowledge the American service men and women who never made it home.” It was a very sober moment that saw the appreciation of recognition by the mothers on stage. Other awards and activities took place, and after a final wrap-up, all left to prepare for the following morning’s big ride into D.C.

Ride and reflect
Sunday morning began with thousands of riders filling up the Pentagon’s north parking lot. Many bikes came with entourages of law enforcement escorts. The gathering of this huge group was done with great effectiveness by hundreds of volunteers working in conjunction with law enforcement officers. Bikes were parked in orderly rows occupying a majority of the lot. On site were vendors selling merchandise and food.

The throngs of people were diverse, coming from all corners of the country and some even from Canada and other faraway places such as South America and Japan. All came with the common aim of participating in the Rolling Thunder XXII ride into D.C. and being a part of history. The expected raucous noise of the huge crowd did not happen. Megan, a local schoolteacher from Falls Church, remarked at how quiet and well-behaved the mass of riders was while waiting for the noon start time.

Moving across the Memorial Bridge near the Lincoln Memorial, the crowd of spectators was growing, as was the anticipation of the impending parade of thousands of bikes. This spot was near the flight path for incoming aircraft landing at Reagan National Airport. The sound of the low-flying planes stimulated the building excitement. At one point close to the noon hour, an approaching airliner on its landing path suddenly gunned its engines, raised its landing gear and climbed quickly into the sky. Most of the crowd saw and heard this and wondered what caused the plane’s hasty wave-off. The answer came moments later when a B52 Stratofortress appeared flying low and loud over a portion of the riding route. The large bomber’s appearance served as a symbol for the original Operation Rolling Thunder during the Vietnam War. Now it served to begin a new campaign.

A few minutes after the flyover, the sound of sirens and a low rumble grew to a roar with police bikes leading the procession of Rolling Thunder members followed by assorted vintage vehicles and then thousands of riders. The route was packed with many spectators who vied for the best spots to watch the machines rolling into D.C. Along 23rd Street prior to turning onto Constitution Avenue stood the iconic Marine Staff Sergeant Chambers saluting an inverted M16, combat boots and helmet placed in front of him. Chambers has done this for many years now, and holds his salute for the duration of the parade. Many riders paused briefly near him and deposited flags, flowers and other mementos. Making the turn onto the Avenue, most bikes blasted down the road in a deafening blare, to the delight of the crowds. The procession lasted into the late afternoon.

At The Wall, quiet crowds walked along and paid respects and homage to the names on it. In the background, the din of the bikes on the Avenue blended into the emotions of many veterans visiting the memorial. At what seemed like a random moment, a Vietnam veteran appeared with a bugle in hand and positioned himself on top of The Wall at the apex. He placed the bugle to his mouth and played Taps. Everyone in earshot stopped, stood still and paid quiet respect as the bugler finished playing. Most of those on the walkway could not contain tears. The Wall carries a lot of emotion.

Later in the afternoon at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, a large stage supported speakers, singers and bands in a tribute to veterans. The musical entertainment included Nancy Sinatra, Gordon Painter and the U.S. Army band Pershing’s Own. In the evening, most crowds dispersed to other events such as the season’s first free performance of the National Symphony Orchestra or to the hundreds of watering holes in the region.

Keeping the tradition
Monday was marked with traditional Memorial Day events. The President visited Arlington Cemetery and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and events were hosted at several other memorials in the area. At The Wall, an observance was held for the fallen. There were several speakers from various organizations, but what was most notable was the addition of a new name to it. Gunnery Sgt. Enrique Valdez of the USMC was added to Panel 17W, Row 51. Gunny Valdez’s family had successfully lobbied to have his name added. Although Valdez did not die in combat, it was decided that his death was directly caused from severe injuries he received while in battle in Vietnam.

The National Memorial Day Parade was held along a long stretch of Constitution Avenue. This yearly event saw thousands of people along the route to watch. This year, the grand marshal was the actor Gary Sinise. Gary played Lt. Dan in the movie Forrest Gump and is a renowned advocate for soldiers and veterans. Along with Gary, Ernest Borgnine appeared as an honorary marshal. The parade ended just in time as a storm front hit, soaking the city.

Throughout the weekend, there was one universal: The sound of V-twins and other assorted motorcycles resonating through the region. It’s a sound that affected people particularly during this time. It seemed to embody democracy and the freedom that was gained by the thousands who served and sacrificed.

It’s hard to summarize the events of Memorial Weekend by comparing it to bike rallies throughout the country. Rolling Thunder and its associated events have a lot of well-organized activities and parties. But this isn’t the reason to come. This is more of a pilgrimage that everyone who considers the U.S. his or her true home should do at least once. If you want to see the nation’s capital and people at their finest, share camaraderie with the thousands around you and be a part of something that is larger than the sum of its parts, then this is the place to ride to during this somber holiday.


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