(Photo by Cheryl Diaz Meyer)

Rolling Thunder: 'It was overwhelming'

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Legionnaire Felicia Rawls participated in her first Rolling Thunder last weekend. It will not be her last, thanks to both her overall experience and making a very special new friend.

Rawls, a Navy veteran and founding member of American Legion Riders Chapter 347 in Lady Lake, Fla., promised a fellow Legionnaire that while up in the D.C. area she’d visit the friend’s son, who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

“Not knowing where his grave was, I had to walk over a mile and a half to get to his gravesite,” Rawls said. “It was so hot, but the whole time I was walking I was thinking, ‘This is worth it. He laid down his life for me so that I can walk this far in this heat to pay my respects.’ And I did.

“I just sat there and I talked to him. I told him, ‘I don’t know who you are. I know your father, but I want to thank you for giving your life for me.’ It was a very, very emotional time. I felt like I met a new brother. He was there in my heart. I really feel a connection, and I will go visit him next year.”

Rawls’ experience was one of several emotional moments experienced by Legion Riders attending Rolling Thunder, which started 31 years ago to bring awareness to the U.S.’s prisoners of wars and missing in action; that number now stands at 82,000 since World War II. What was thought to be approaching 500,000 motorcycles rode in from all over the nation, gathering in the Pentagon parking lot and then traveling down Constitution Avenue, turning at Third Street and then finishing up along Independence Avenue.

Thousands of supporters stood along the route, holding signs, waving U.S. flags and clapping as the motorcycles passed by. Seeing that kind of support stirred emotions in Rawls.

“Seeing all of these people out and waving at us and supporting the veterans, it kind of gives hope that our nation still does have people that care and respect those … that have served,” Rawls said. “It was overwhelming.”

The Riders also got an impressive sendoff from Fairfax, Va., where hundreds of area residents stood along Fairfax Boulevard and Nutley Street before the procession got onto I-66 East. There, every overpass also featured dozens of supporters, again waving flags and cheering.

That support wasn’t lost on Henderson, Nev., Post 40 Legion Riders Phil Perlman and Kathleen Jordan, who rode 2,500 miles to participate in their first Rolling Thunder.

“That was awesome,” Jordan said. “All the people on the bridges – and on each bridge there was someone there.”

Jordan also was impressed with the hospitality provided by Post 177 in Fairfax, which for the seventh year hosted or facilitated multiple events for the close to 200 Legion Riders and their passengers who made it to the post.

“All the people at the post are so friendly and so helpful,” Jordan said. “When they know that you’re from out of town, they do the best they can to accommodate any needs or answer any questions we have.”

“It’s been great,” added Perlman, Chapter 40’s director. “They put out a really good event there. It’s well organized. It’s a good time.”

While it is a lot of work to put on an event like Post 177 does each year, ALR Chapter 177 Director Bruce Mersereau said it’s well worth it. “We always look forward to this,” he said. “It’s our biggest event. We look forward to seeing everybody coming here. It is a lot of preparation and a lot of work during the weekend. But the worst thing is that it seems like the weekend is over in the flash.”

Post 177 Legion Rider Michael Nicholas Sr., led the post’s Rolling Thunder committee for the previous six years before stepping away from that role this year. But he was still visible and taking on a leadership position throughout the weekend.

“I was just helping out where I could help out,” Nicholas said. “With all the people that show up and come here from all over the country, you try to chip in where you can. I’ve done it for so long, and that’s why I chip in and help out.”

Having hosted the event seven times, Post 177 has gotten to where mistakes don’t happen often. “Guys know what to do,” Nicholas said. “They step up and fill in.”

While many of the Legion Riders participating in Rolling Thunder already are out of the military, they were joined again this year by current Marine Cpl. Shawn Wathen, who is stationed in Quantico and is a member of Post 28 in Triangle, Va. He was a former member of American Legion Post 136 in Arroyo Grande, Calif., where his father Bob has served as post commander.

“I just like the group, like the people,” Wathen said of why he transferred his Legion membership when he moved east. “I got used to hanging around with everyone at (Post 136) and enjoyed the camaraderie. When I got out (to Virginia) I wanted to find that same thing, as well as the veterans services and stay involved in that type of thing.”

It was Wathen’s second Rolling Thunder. He said nerves really didn’t come into play last year during his debut, mostly due to his fellow Riders. “I felt pretty comfortable with it (last year),” he said. “The biggest thing for me was having the group that I ride with – we came up with a little group from (Post 28) – so just kind of being with them and being around more Legion Riders … everyone here is laid back and relaxed, but still safe and professional.”

While Wathen has spent two years heading from Fairfax to D.C. with a group of Legion Riders, a longtime Rolling Thunder participant was making her debut with the Riders. Sharon Sculthorpe, a member of Legion Post 325 in Danville, Va., made her sixth trip to Rolling Thunder, but it was the first time she’d rode with her fellow Legion Riders in Sunday’s demonstration ride. The previous five times Sculthorpe had served as an escort for a Gold Star mom.

“It was a different experience, but different in a good way,” said Sculthorpe, a longtime member of the Legacy Run’s advance team. “It’s always good to be with your brothers and sisters that you know and you ride with from the Legion. There’s a core group here that does the Legacy Run … who have come in for this, too. It gave me a new appreciation for it, to be in that sea of humanity (at the Pentagon) vs. being out there on the side and kind of tucked away.

“I definitely would do it again. I really enjoyed the camaraderie. I enjoyed the patriotism. And I enjoyed meeting people and talking to people. These are some of the most dedicated people I know. Who in the world would come up here and stand in that heat for hours on end to do that ride if it wasn’t for love of country … and to let these families know their fallen aren’t forgotten.”

It was the overall experience that brought Fred Nelson,a founding member of Legion Riders Chapter 164 in Spearfish, S.D., 1,800 miles for his second Rolling Thunder. He brought with him four other Chapter 164 Riders attending Rolling Thunder for the first time.

"There's no other experience like it," Nelson said. "The moving experience of the candelight vigil and then actually riding in Rolling Thunder with all the other bikes in support of the veterans and those who made the ultimate sacrifice, it was beyond belief."