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Rolling Thunder: An emotional journey

Featured in Legion Riders

As a bystander at the 25th annual Rolling Thunder “Run to the Wall,” it’s easy to describe the event in purely objective terms. But such journalistic detachment would be difficult to maintain by an old veteran riding in the ever-growing Rolling Thunder pilgrimage. The tale would be better and more accurately told in the recounting of personal experiences and impressions, knowing that the feelings they would evoke were common among the participants. 

The sweltering 90-degree weather hovered over the riders as they congregated in the Pentagon parking lot Sunday morning in preparation for the “Run to the Wall.” While the weather was difficult to withstand, experienced riders assured perspiring newcomers that the “stand to,” no matter how uncomfortable, was worth the inconvenience once wheels were rolling. 

I asked a French Canadian biker why he and his group had motored down to observe the Rolling Thunder tribute. He replied, “Because we are veterans, too, and we and you have always fought side-by-side.” 

Then there was a young couple from Colorado. While the length of their trek did not set them apart from many of the riders, their mission did. The young man — a a Sons of The American Legion member — carried the ashes of his recently departed father, who was a faithful and devoted Rolling Thunder rider. Sunday was day 17 of the couple’s two-wheeled journey to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

Additionally, of the more than 800 Legion Riders that gathered Saturday at Post 177 in Fairfax, Va., one was a Midwestern Legionnaire whose motorcycle had been stolen from an Indianapolis hotel parking lot midway through his trip to Washington, D.C. But as he returned home with a rented automobile, a telephone call confirmed that the bike, nearly unharmed, had been recovered in a field by a farmer. As one rider said, “That boy was meant to be here.”

Helicopters were a common sight overhead as thousands of Rolling Thunder riders chatted under their rotor blades. But one helicopter drew special attention — Marine One. President Obama could have been aboard the helicopter marveling at the sight below, especially since it made two low, sweeping passes over the scene before disappearing in the direction of the White House. 

Finally, around noon bike engines snarled to life as saddled veterans traveled from the Pentago parking lot, over the Potomac River and toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  Along the route a seemingly endless stream of well wishers lined the avenues cheering, waving, flying American flags, touching riders' outstretched hands, and holding signs of praise and gratitude in support of the veterans.  It was enough to make one forget the preceding hours of miserable heat and idleness. It was enough to prove the old timers right. It was, in fact, enough to make a grown man cry.

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glennf

June 16, 2012 - 7:53am

As one of the ALR that got shafted by Rolling Thunder, Inc, I will be back next year. Kudos for Post 177 for their effort. They did a wonderfull job. I just hope the powers that be, think twice about doing it the same way next year. Our trip started @ 0430 to meet other Post 156 riders, then 0530 to meet up with Post 320 riders, then up to Post 177. Then up to the wall. We were disapointed to find out we couldn't get over to the north parking lot. All the Rolling Thunder people could say was"we will get you over when we can." Later on all they would say is ÿou will be able to leave this lot about 1530." Three and a half hours after the parade starts. So we left. Good Luck next year.

rsbeckwell

May 29, 2012 - 9:17am

My fear is that the powers-that-be will attempt to down play this debacle. If that is done, it will be viewed very negatively by those of us who experienced this slight. We don't necessarily expect an apology, but we don't want to hear that it just happened either. After we arrived at the Pentagon, we were under the control of the Rolling Thunder, Inc. They dropped the ball concerning coordination with the Pentagon Police, and the fact that there was a simple solution to the problem that was not considered add salt to whatever platitudes offered to the 1,00+ ALR members that traveled here on their time and their dime.

Craig Roberts

May 29, 2012 - 8:22am

I had visited Post 177 for several hours the day before Rolling Thunder and was astounded at the number of Legion Riders who gathered; two or three times those originally expected. On the day of the run I rode my Beemer in with a small group from my own Post in Maryland and was thus, unaware of the fate of the 800-rider ALR group from Fairfax. I had heard they had been shuttled off to the Pentagon's south parking lot, but was also informed that they would be escorted by police to join the rest of us. I did not learn what actually happened until yesterday. It is truly a shame. Post 177 -- a beautiful Post -- did a magnificent job hosting the riders. I hope that this year's unfortunate experience will not deter future Rolling Thunder ALR efforts.

rsbeckwell

May 28, 2012 - 9:42pm

mm3white - you guys did a really great job. I was filled with pride participating with the efforts your post provided. A simple solution to the South parking lot problem seemed to elude, not only Rolling Thunder, but also the Pentagon Police. SOLUTION: From the South Parking lot, the riders proceed to VS-27 via N. Rotary RD. From there they proceed 3000 feet to the exit going to the N. Boundary Channel Access Rd. Left to the first entrance into the North Parking lot. South parking lot emptied in 1/2 hour, ALR in place; Rolling Thunder's processing of riders is not impugned, problem solved. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anyone who wanted to hear this solution. I tried to present it to a RT "official", but was told, "The decision has been made, STAY PUT!" Guess my problem was that I was an ALR member. Perhaps, if I were a Rolling Thunder member I would have been heard. What ever the reason, the simplest solution wasn't considered. Hard feelings abound. Post 177: You are revered for your efforts; Rolling thunder,Inc., You dropped the ball and through the machinations of your workers, disenfranchised nearly 1,000 American Legion embers who traveled from all over this country to participate in this event with respect and honor - including this Viet Nam veteran. A simple solution existed, but it wasn't in your agenda to resolve it. The failure of giving the American Legion Riders the respect we deserve is in your court.

mm3white

May 28, 2012 - 6:38pm

As a member of Post 177 it is immensely gratifying to hear that all the work and planning that we put into this paid off in the form of a great experience for the riders who came. After seeing you guys off at 0730, I and 2 of the other color guard members went down to Patriot Harley Davidson where the "Ride of the Patriots" starts their run to connect with Rolling Thunder. We lined up in the median part of the street and went to present arms for them like we did for our riders leaving the post. When I got back and learned that the ALRs got shanghied out to the hinterland I was dumbfounded. I know we will be going over this to figure out how to keep that from happening again. Thanks for visiting Post 177.

rsbeckwell

May 28, 2012 - 8:09am

I am assured that you know about the vast majority of those 800 ALR riders never made it to the run. We were stuck in the south parking lot, unable to go to the reserved spaces in the North parking lot due to the Pentagon Police not allowing us to cross a bridge. Post 177 in Fairfax did an outstanding job and deserves every kudo that can be given, but it fell apart when we were turned over to Rolling Thunder. Most of the groups, that traveled from all over this country decided that waiting another 6 hours in the scorching heat, with minimal relief support, wasn't worth the wait. Those who stayed went last, instead of the reserved positions we were supposed to have up front. Please, no more spin.

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