As the National Chairman of the American Legion Riders, Bob Sussan has talked to a lot of Gold Star families, and a lot of riders. And the message he hears from both about Memorial Day and the annual Rolling Thunder demonstration ride is the same: that veterans and the families of veterans simply want to be remembered.
Sussan relayed how in talking to the family of Chief Warrant Officer 3 Corey Goodnature, a Chinook pilot from Albert Lea, Minn., it was made explicit: “They told us the biggest fear of a Gold Star family is that their family members sacrifice will be forgotten.”
Judging by the turnout numbers for what is currently slated to be the last Rolling Thunder, no one will be forgetting any time soon. The inaugural Rolling Thunder, held in 1983, had 2,000-3,000 bikers, led by a group carrying a banner which read “We will Never Forget.” Held ever since on the Sunday before Memorial Day, the demonstration ride to honor those U.S. servicemembers missing in action and prisoners of war has grown to nearly 1 million people. Because of rising costs and the planning required for such an event, organizers have said this will be the last in Washington, D.C., instead replaced by numerous demonstration rides held locally by chapters.
At American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va., over 1,000 bikers reported for duty at 4:30 in the morning, lining up side by side all across the post parking lot and that of an adjacent school. Despite the early hour, everyone was in good spirits. For many, this was exactly what they had done for years, but for others who came for the first time, it was something to behold, a sort of bucket list event to attend.
One of the latter group was Gary Kerr from Summerfield, Fla., who drove up over the span of three days with eight others from his post. A Legion rider who is retired, Gary served in the Marine Corps as a jet engine mechanic on helicopters and later as a maintenance officer.
Gary wanted to be at the ride because of the significance that the ride, and the fear that it might not take place again. “It’s the last,” he noted sadly. “It’s for a good purpose, plus it’s the last so I wanted to see it.”
Kerr was in awe at how many people take part. The 1,000 bikes from Post 177 would join up with roughly 6,000 more bikes in front of a nearby Harley-Davidson dealership in Fairfax. From there a police escort took them down the highway to the Pentagon, where the group joined numerous other groups in staging on the Virginia side of the Potomac for the short, but stunning, ride into Washington, D.C. and around the National Mall.
The ride from Fairfax to the Pentagon, roughly 10 miles, featured thousands of spectators, many watching from the numerous overpasses with handmade signs and a plethora of American flags, service flags and the iconic MIA/POW flags.
“Amazing, it’s amazing how many bikes and how many people came out [for the ride to the Pentagon.] And it’s gonna get worse.” Kerr noted with a chuckle.
The Pentagon parking lot is notorious for being over-crowded, and scorching hot, with little shade available and long lines at concession stands and restrooms. A slight breeze and lucky draw of a staging position near a line of trees on the bank of the river made it a fairly easy process though. As Kerr waited for the ride to commence, he walked around and met other Legionnaires.
“I met a lot of people from all over, and a lot of others like me that are first timers,” Kerr said. For him, attendance was both a duty and something to enjoy. “It’s an obligation to be here to honor those who went before, and it’s a great opportunity to meet with your peers, and it’s for an extremely good cause,” he said.
The final portion of the ride around the National Mall may have been short – he estimates it took less than 15 minutes after eight hours of preparing – but meaningful to Kerr, especially riding with his fellow Legionnaires. “This is what The American Legion is” he said. “This is our purpose.”