Gold Star families help kick off Rolling Thunder
Photo by Schelly Stone/The American Legion

Gold Star families help kick off Rolling Thunder

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Kristen Santos-Silva’s voice brimmed with emotion as she spoke about her husband to nearly 600 Legionnaires and veterans’ supporters assembled in the banquet hall of American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va., on Friday evening.

“Carlos deployed September 3, 2009, as a platoon sergeant for 2nd platoon, Charlie Company [of the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division]. Months later, Monday morning, March 22, 2010, I turned from a Blue Star wife to a Gold Star wife and was left to raise an 11-year child on my own," Kristen said. "The world that I had known as an active duty military spouse, living in base housing and the activities that I participated in as a spouse, would suddenly change.”

Santos-Silva was one of five Gold Star family members who were honored guests of the post. For the eighth straight year, American Legion Post 177 is serving as the epicenter of American Legion Riders activities during the Memorial Day Weekend’s Rolling Thunder event, hosting over a 1,000 American Legion Family members during its "Run to the Thunder." Other fallen servicemembers with families in attendance were Lt. Col. Michael E. McLaughlin, Sgt. Gene L. Lamie, Spc. Charles Bilbrey Jr., and Lance Cpl. Travis Michael Nelson.

Carlos and Kristen met when they were both serving in the Army, first at Fort Campbell and then at four other posts during the 12 years of their marriage.

“Memorial Day 2010, arrived and thus, brought forth changes to my life, as this was the first Memorial Day that had a significant impact, from visiting my husband in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60, where he is buried to seeing all these motorcycles that caught my attention off Constitution Ave," Kristen said. "The thousands of motorcycles, I saw, served as a symbolic representation that my beloved Carlos was telling me, I was standing where I needed to be. Carlos and I had decided before he left on deployment, we would get our bike license when he came back, however, that did not happen, but what happened was making my way to the front of Abraham Lincoln, and witnessing this awesome military gathering.”

And with her husband gone, Kristen found a new family to be there for her as she started attending Rolling Thunder each year, and became active in The American Legion.

“Thanks to social media, I was able to stay in touch with my newfound family members [from Rolling Thunder] and returned home to join The American Legion in Maryland as a member at large. Since then my son and I have relocated to Knoxville, Tenn., and here I was able to join The American Legion Post 2 and joined the American Legion Riders and become involved serving those in the area, and also enrolled my son in the Sons of The American Legion.”

For Bob Sussan, chairman of The American Legion Riders National Advisory Committee and a member of Post 177, having the Gold Star families there at these events is paramount.

“As members of the American Legion Family, we pledge through the preamble of our organization’s constitution to ‘preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in the Great Wars,’” noted Sussan in prepared remarks before Kristen's address. “Yet, we do not remember our fallen brothers and sisters-in-arms because of an edict or obligatory ritual. We do so because we want to. And we want to be there for their families.”

“We need to be there for all of them,” he continued. “Nobody can replace these fallen heroes, especially in the eyes of their families, but we can offer shoulders to cry on and assurances that their loved one’s sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

Legion Riders also staged on a highway overpass on Friday to welcome other riders coming in from around the country, before over 450 motorcycles would form a procession down to the Vietnam Memorial Wall at sundown to partake in a huge candlelight vigil at the memorial. Crowds of people were so massive that many people were unable to even see the wall from their vantage points which were up to 300 yards away.

Sussan said that over 1,050 Legion Riders had registered for the events that will go all weekend, and he expects that another 50-100 might still show up.

Originally begun in 1988 to bring attention to those missing in action and prisoners of war, Rolling Thunder has grown from roughly 2,000 motorcyclists to an estimated 500,000 last year. Because of the costs associated with permits and getting sufficient law enforcement and counter-terrorism support, the organizers of Rolling Thunder have announced that this will be the last year it will be held in Washington, D.C., but will continue as various local and state runs.