For the first time in Rolling Thunder's 25-year history, a large contingent of American Legion Riders will join the parade on Memorial Day. As many as 500 biking Legionnaires are expected to meet in the Washington area to join the annual Run to the Wall, starting at the Pentagon and proceeding to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Nick Nicholas, treasurer at Fairfax, Va., Post 177, says the idea came from a group of Treasure Island, Fla., Legion Riders at last year's run. "They asked, ‘Why don't we ride as a group?'" Nicholas says. "A lot of guys had thought of that, so we decided to try to make it happen."
Nicholas, a West Point graduate and civilian Pentagon worker, put together a 12-member committee to plan a rally. Brad Watkins, Post 177's first vice commander, assisted in coordinating the planned Legion Riders ride-in.
"John Sommer and Bob Spanogle really helped with the effort, too," Nicholas says. "They gave terrific support."
Rolling Thunder has been close to Harley aficionado Sommer's heart since its founding. As a decorated Vietnam War combat medic, he made the POW/MIA issue one of his signature causes during his long tenure at the Legion. Sommer spent 35 years at the Legion's D.C. headquarters, starting as a claims representative and eventually serving as executive director. He has traveled to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos several times to promote the POW/MIA cause.
Spanogle, a past national commander and past national adjutant, is no stranger to Rolling Thunder and the Legion Riders, either. His enthusiasm and encouragement played a big part in the Legion's decision to be an official sponsor of the 2012 run.
Spanogle says he's noticed an increase in younger riders participating in veterans' motorcycle rallies.
"Vietnam veterans, who now make up most of our membership and leadership, made up their minds that the new generation of soldiers, from the Persian Gulf on, would not have happen to them what happened to us," he says. "The youngest riders today are riding alongside Vietnam vets, and they love it. I don't see a real generation gap. In my experience, vets want to serve their fellow vets. They have a cause bigger than themselves."
Several American Legion posts in the D.C. area will serve as meeting points for Legion Riders planning to join the herd, Nicholas says. His Fairfax post will host an open house the day before the Rolling Thunder run, with patch sewing, bike detailing, maintenance and other vendors.
"We'll have a barbecue in the afternoon, and we've designed a unique patch and pin to commemorate the event, which we will be selling," he says.
Any money raised by the Legion Riders during Rolling Thunder weekend will be donated to The American Legion Legacy Run in August.