Vietnam Army veteran Artie Muller, founder of Rolling Thunder Inc, has many patches on his motorcycle vest, but there’s only one that defines his fierce determination and singular focus, it says, “I ride for those who cannot speak for themselves, prisoners of war, missing-in-action.”
This Memorial Day marks the 31st Rolling Thunder demonstration ride; the largest motorcycle gathering on the planet in a single day.
The ride brings together veterans and non-veterans, Gold Star families, and even a visit by the most recent Medal of Honor recipient, retired Master Chief Special Warfare Operator Britt Slabinski—all to honor and remember prisoners of war and missing-in-action.
We Will Never Forget
“We will not rest until all the missing are accounted for,” Muller says. “Everyone needs to write their Congressman and demand that we work together with other countries to find and return our missing soldiers.”
Riders came from all over the United States, some from Canada, and even a military detachment from the Netherlands who had their bikes flown in to ride and remember the fallen and the lost.
“Rolling Thunder is here to make sure that the American public are reminded of the sacrifices that our men and women make today,” Commander Kirk Lippold says. “but also to account for those that are still missing. We need to hold the government accountable for those that are still missing.”
Commander Lippold knows a few things about accountability. He was Commander of the USS Cole when it came under attack by al Qaeda. He and his crew are credited with keeping their ship afloat after the devastating bombing and thereby saving many lives.
Over the years Rolling Thunder has celebrated efforts that provide families closure as remains of service members are recovered and returned to the U.S. from World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
"These men that we are here to remember, many of them were drafted, and they served with honor," said Rockie Lynne, singer and songwriter and Army Airborne veteran. "We're here to honor these men and so for me, to be here and perform, it's my way of saying thank you."
Lynne performed throughout the weekend and on Memorial Day. He says much of his songwriting is inspired by the stories of the men who never made it home.
In addition to his career as a songwriter and singer, he also gives back in a big way by performing for troops deployed overseas and is the founder of Tribute to the Troops; a national charitable organization that organizes motorcycle rides to the homes of families that have lost a son or daughter while serving this country to support and thank them, letting them know they will never be forgotten.
More than 80,000 Still Missing
According to the Pentagon's Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, there are currently 83,204 unaccounted for U.S. personnel, including 73,547 from World War II, 7,883 from the Korean War, 126 from the Cold War, 1,642 from the Vietnam War, and six from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other recent conflicts.
“This demonstration is very important to us, not only as a veteran, but also as someone who works for Harley-Davidson,” says Anoop Prakash, Marine Corps veteran and Harley Davidson Director U.S. Marketing and Market Development. “This demonstration is to keep that constant drumbeat going to make sure that we don’t forget.”
Harley-Davidson’s Commitment to the Military and Veteran Communities
Harley-Davidson’s military connection goes back to 1916 when General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing ordered motorcycles for the punitive raid against the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. In tribute to their ongoing commitment to the military and veteran communities, Harley-Davidson renewed it’s support of Rolling Thunder with a donation of $50,000.
The ride meanders around the nation’s capital with flag waving crowds lined up, street by street, showing their support for veterans, the fallen, and the lost. The ride ends at the Lincoln Memorial with a concert, talks by special guests, color guard and special remembrances. At one point, the Rolling Thunder team carried out a small bamboo POW cage and placed it on the stage as a symbolic reminder of those who are still missing.
“If not now, when?” asks Trent Wharton, Airborne Ranger combat veteran. “We’re tired of lip service. But there’s hope, I’m here, we’re all here and we’re going to continue to stand together.”
Many veterans echoed Wharton’s sentiments but also said that they were hopeful that their continued presence would be the catalyst for change.
“I encourage everyone to engage with veteran organizations and listen to their stories to foster a deeper understanding of what it’s like to serve this country.” says Commander Lippold. “In this way, we all can honor those who have fallen and are still missing.”
About Rolling Thunder
Incorporated in 1995, Rolling Thunder, Inc. is a class 501(c) (4) nonprofit organization with over 90 chartered chapters throughout the United States and members abroad. While many members of Rolling Thunder®, Inc. are veterans and many ride motorcycles, neither qualification is a prerequisite. Rolling Thunder®, Inc. members are old and young, men and women, veterans and non-veterans. All are united in the cause to bring full accountability for the Prisoners Of War-Missing In Action (POW/MIA) of all wars, reminding the government, the media and the public by our watchwords: “We Will Not Forget.”
-- Sean Mclain Brown can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @seanmclainbrown.