Rolling Thunder: Healing, camaraderie and a mission

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When Army veteran James Petito came home from Vietnam, he tried to put it all behind him. He wouldn’t join any veterans groups because he “just wanted to stay away from it.”

Years later, Petito got involved in The American Legion – and the Legion Riders – and decided to take part in the annual Rolling Thunder Run to the Thunder motorcycle event in Washington, D.C., in 2008. During that trip, he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

And it changed his life.

“My first trip to the wall remained devastating,” said Petito, a member of Legion Post 35 in Wasilla, Alaska. “You’ve seen pictures and everything, but to actually be there … it towers over you. It’s an unreal feeling.

“I’d repressed being in Vietnam for so long that I couldn’t remember the boys that died next to me.”

Petito – who flew into Las Vegas May 25 and then went to Georgia to pick up a bike he stores in the lower 48 states – went to high school with Bill Kaledas, one of the original founders of the Legion Riders. Petito said becoming a Legionnaire and Legion Rider changed his life; he’s in his third term as Post 35’s commander.

“Once I got involved … it was a great feeling,” he said.

Petito was one of hundreds of Legionnaires in the D.C. area Memorial Day weekend to take part in the May 29 motorcycle ride designed to raise awareness, and honor, America’s military missing in action and prisoners of war. Nearly a half a million motorcycles were expected to participate in the event, while another half a million people were in D.C. to show their support for the ride.

For the fifth year, Legion Post 177 served as the center of several Legion Rider activities during the weekend, including rides to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for a candlelight vigil and to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying.

Putting on an event where more than 200 Legion Riders, Legion family members and Gold Star families spend a weekend at the post requires a lot of planning. And teamwork.

“We have a pretty large committee that does it,” said Mike Nicholas, Post 177’s Rolling Thunder Committee chairman and head road captain. “I’m like a gardener. I just kind of pour water on stuff and it grows. We have a whole bunch of folks who do a lot of work.

“We plan all year long. We’ll do an after-action review at our next meeting (in June) and we start planning for next year.”

Colin Waldroup, Post 177 ALR director and the post’s first vice commander, said planning for a Rolling Thunder weekend starts “tomorrow.” But the effort is worth it.

“We need to remember,” Waldroup said. “This is about remembering those who didn’t come home: either POWs that are still there, and remembering the ones that are here, that are buried. It’s really important … that we do remember, and that they’re not forgotten. As long as The American Legion is in existence, they will not be forgotten.”

Remembering fallen comrades is what has brought Vietnam veteran Dan Melloche to Rolling Thunder for six years. A member of Post 138 in Spencer, Mass., Melloche said the trip to D.C. and Virginia is much more than a weekend getaway.

“It became a pilgrimage, of sorts, for us – something we look forward to every year,” Melloche said. “It’s a tremendous feeling of camaraderie. It’s more of a pilgrimage than a trip or a vacation. We look at it as something you really have to do once a year.”

Fellow Post 138 member Gary Herl made his first trip to Rolling Thunder this year. He said he cried when he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where he saw the names of men he knew. But the sadness is countered by being around fellow Vietnam veterans.

“It’s all about camaraderie,” Herl said. “It’s heaven. It’s just an awesome, awesome place for Vietnam veterans to be. The bikes are secondary. It’s all about the camaraderie and the Vietnam veterans.”

Post 177’s Rolling Thunder events also have served as a gathering place for Gold Star families who have lost loved ones serving in the military. Dan McLaughlin, a member of ALR Chapter 117 in Butler County, Pa., lost his son Michael during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. He was one of several Gold Star parents and families invited by the Legion to attend the events at Post 177.

“It’s very, very important (in the healing process) because you see so many other Gold Star families here,” he said. “You get a chance to talk to them and understand what they’re going through: what they’re feeling and how they’re making changes and accepting things in their life."

Nearly 250 motorcycles left Post 177 in Fairfax and joined up with other veteran motorcycle groups to participate in The Ride of the Patriots to the Pentagon parking lot. Hundreds of supporters lined Fairfax Boulevard to send off the riders; more were scattered along the side of the run and then on every overpass on I-66 East as the group of more than 3,000 motorcycles moved toward the Pentagon.

As the ride moved along Constitution Avenue in downtown D.C., hundreds of thousands of spectators stood along the street to show their support. That kind of support means something to Themis Smyrnioudis, ALR assistant director for Sykesville Memorial Post 223 in Maryland and a Vietnam veteran. Smyrnioudis has participated in Rolling Thunder for 17 of the past 18 years and hasn’t gotten dulled to the crowd reception the ride receives.

“It’s very patriotic,” Smyrnioudis said. “It’s very heartwarming to see this many people coming out to support this Rolling Thunder cause.”

Mike Lecza, a fellow member of Post 223, served in the Army from 1991-2004. He came to D.C. for his first Rolling Thunder. And when he rode past Tim Chambers – who has gained fame as the Marine veteran who stands on Constitution and salutes Rolling Thunder for nearly four hours as it passes by him – the ride hit home.

“It was just incredible,” Lecza said. “I’ve lost friends on deployments while I was serving … when I saw that Marine standing there … I just got all choked up. It was just incredible.”

And though Rolling Thunder wrapped up Sunday afternoon, the relationships formed during the weekend remain.

“Guys come back every year,” Nicholas said. “We stay in touch. It’s an awesome experience. It’s like people coming home when people come back here every year."