Rolling Thunder: An emotional journey

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.