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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Rolling Thunder: Memorial Day and How It Should Be Done

I had the privileged to spend Memorial Day Weekend with my husband's extended family, many of whom are serving or have served in the military.  It was a truly moving and humbling experience.  THIS is how everyone should spend Memorial Day.

You see, I live in a city that has three motorcycle "weeks" per year.  These are weeks when motorcycle enthusiasts all come down to our humble beach city and participate in rides, check out the latest in motorcycle bling, and experience the camaraderie that you can only experience with fellow riders.   I expected Rolling Thunder to be very similar to those weeks, which I had experienced many times before.  I was very wrong.

I'm not a rider.  I think motorcycles are beautiful pieces of machinery and in their own way have an elegance hidden beneath their loud reverberating exteriors.  There is a sleekness about them.  I'm partial to the older classic beach style bikes with the pastel colors, chrome details, brown leather saddlebags, and fewer add-ons.  My husband has a classic styled motorcycle with custom paint, custom seats, and a handful of other custom details that I wont pretend to know anything about.  I also appreciate the thrill that motorcycles give their rider and I understand the status "symbol" that a nice motorcycle is.  After-all, a nice motorcycle often costs more than a nice car after all the add-ons and custom details.

So, you see, I thought that Rolling Thunder would be another "let me show off my bike" events.  It was far FAR from that.

What is Rolling Thunder?
Rolling Thunder is an advocacy group that works towards full accountability for Prisoner of War (POW) and Missing in Action (MIA) service members in all U.S. Wars.  They do this mostly through education, outreach, funding, and publicity of the issues.

It was conceived as a response to concerns about Missing in Action and Prisoners of War in the Vietnam war who were largely neglected and forgotten by our government and people.  At the time that Rolling Thunder was conceived there were believed to be as many as 10,000 Missing in Action or Prisoners of War still in Vietnam, but the reports of their status were ignored by media and dismissed by intelligence.  Rolling Thunder has worked on many pieces of legislation that help and protect veterans and active duty service members including the Missing Service Personnel Act of 1997, the Bring Them Home Alive Act of 2000 and the Persian Gulf War POW/MIA Accountability Act enacted in 2002.  Rolling Thunder works to be the voice of those who cannot speak.

Every year for as far as anyone can remember, this man has spent the Ride for Freedom
inside this cage to help raise awareness for POW and MIA issues.
Rolling Thunder Charities is the non-profit group that most of Rolling Thunder's money channels through.  Rolling Thunder Charities helps provide funding to ease the hardships of the lives of veterans and service people. The is soley dedicated to:
 • Providing financial support to our troops, disabled veterans and their families when they are in need of help
• Providing financial support to a host of veterans advocacy groups to help homeless and impoverished veterans
• Sponsoring Friday Night Dinners for wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Hospital
Read more here: Rolling Thunder Charities

Rolling Thunder began a campaign called Ride for Freedom (also called Run to the Wall) in 1987.  This gathering brings in roughly 1 million riders and participants each Memorial Day weekend to Washington D.C.  The riders gather throughout the weekend to hear speakers, discuss issues, and work together to bring about awareness of the group's mission.  The event is concluded by the Run to the Wall where riders gather in the Pentagon parking lots then precisely at noon begin traveling on a pre-determined, closed loop, that crosses Memorial Bridge and concludes at the Vietnam Memorial.  Riders then park their bikes along pre-determined routes and begin the on-foot journey through the various memorials in the heart of D.C. paying their respects at each of the memorials and remembering those who have been lost in service.

Panorama view of just one of the parking lots at the Pentagon where riders waited to begin the Ride for Freedom

Why Rolling Thunder?
While I was at the event I couldn't help but feel the power of the rumble behind the roughly 1 million motorcycles participating in the event.  There is no other word to describe it than a ROLLING THUNDER that you can feel deep in your chest.  A Rolling Thunder that you can hear coming for miles.  A Rolling Thunder that doesn't stop for hours (I heard the reverberating of engines from roughly noon till 5pm).  So, why Rolling Thunder and why the Ride for Freedom?  What is the story behind the event and what is the symbolism?  I knew that there had to be a reason beyond the stereotypical connection between motorcycles and military, but what I discovered was far more touching that I expected.

Rolling Thunder was an aerial bombardment campaign that ran from 2 March 1965 until 2 November 1968 during the Vietnam War.  The campaign largely began as a psychological persuasion meant to intimidate the opposition during the war.  While the success of the campaign is disputable (due to a number of issues), the power of Operation Rolling Thunder is undeniable.  With a sustained bombing of roughly 3 years, witnesses claim that the sound of aircraft continual presence is describable by no other words than a constant "Rolling Thunder".  

It was this presence that the founders of Rolling Thunder wanted to emulate through the use of motorcycles.  Rolling Thunder's Ride for Freedom would emulate the constant reverberating thunder experienced by the Vietnam veterans (and the presumed POW and MIA soldiers still unaccounted for).  It would be presence that couldn't be ignored.  The Rolling Thunder of motorcycles would say "We are here" and "We will not forget".  A truly powerful message that is so very closely linked to the inspiration for the creation of the group.

You can read more here: Operation Rolling Thunder

The Real POW and MIA Issues...
Rolling Thunder has faced many criticisms in the past due to the controversial nature of their mission.  Officially, according to the United States Government, the POWs and MIA service members who spurred the creation of the group did not exist.  The U.S. Government never accepted nor substantiated the reports of many of the roughly 10,000 service members who were reported MIA or POW.  In other words, critics of the group largely claim that their is no fact to substantiate the groups main mission (to raise awareness about those who are POW or MIA).

There are also adversaries of Rolling Thunder that criticize the groups' Ride for Freedom each Memorial Day weekend in Washington D.C. claiming that the event is disruptive and counter productive.  This is largely because they lack the understanding of the importance of the event and the symbolic meaning of Rolling Thunder.  A little research would go a long way in helping these nay-sayers understand why roughly a million motorcycles gather for such an event and why the sound and reverberation are important to the event.

The fact remains, regardless of the status of those potential POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam War, the U.S. is continually involved in foreign conflicts where service members may go Missing in Action and may become Prisoners of War.  Thanks to the efforts of this group and many others the public knowledge of POW and MIA issues has increased, the funding for support of military families has increased, and legislation has passed to help protect our service people.

For more information about current MIA and POW statistics please see the following websites:
POW List (does not include Iraq and Afghanistan statistics)
National Archives Military Records
National Archives Other War Records
POW/MIA in the Iraq and Afghani Wars
Black POWs in Vietnam

What Memorial Day is All About...
Over the years Memorial Day has changed.  It's become a long weekend that our kids get out of school.  A long weekend where we don't have to go to work on Monday.  A long weekend... It's become a chance to take a vacation because the weekend is one day longer than usual.  It's become a chance to spend the weekend relaxing while off work.  It's become a weekend of Memorial Day Sales.  We can shop at our favorite stores and get good discounts then go home and cook out while drinking, watching the kids play, and laugh with our friends, neighbors, and family.  This is NOT what Memorial Day is about.  Our view of Memorial Day has gotten warped and twisted and we have forgotten what we are SUPPOSED to be doing on Memorial Day.  We have forgotten the people Memorial Day is meant for.

Memorial Day isn't Veterans Day.  I think that this is an important distinction.  Officially, Veterans Day is the day we honor military veterans (that is, people who have served in the US Military).  It coincides with other events internationally that also commemorate and honor service members.  This is the day that we make it known how much we appreciate our current and past military veterans.  We tell them "Thank You For Your Service".  We offer them our support by going to parades, changing our Facebook pictures, offering words of gratitude, and making sure that we display our appreciation in every way possible.  On Veterans Day we honor ALL MILITARY SERVICE.  Those that serve, those that have served, those that will serve, those that have died or been injured, those that have dedicated their lives to protecting our freedoms.

Memorial Day is the day that we honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  The day we honor those that didn't make it back home.  The day we mourn their loss.  The day that we thank them and their families for giving their all.  The day we honor the lives of those that died protecting our freedoms.

On our walk of the memorials after the Ride for Freedom we took some time at the
WWII Memorial to think about those who had been lost.

There are 4,048 gold stars; each one represents 100 American military deaths in WWII.

I think  it's safe to say that the vast majority of Americans have completely forgotten WHO Memorial Day is about.  I don't think that ANYONE can claim that shopping sales honors those who are supposed to be memorialized on Memorial Day.  Can Memorial Day be a celebration?  Sure.  Let's celebrate the lives of our fallen service men and women.  Let's celebrate the freedoms that they died protecting.  Let's celebrate being American.  But lets do it under the understanding that those freedoms didn't come free.  Let's remember that there are families who mourn the loss of a father, brother, mother, sister, daughter, son, grand child... everyday, and not one day a year.  Let's not only enjoy our family cook-outs and Memorial Day parades, but let's take a moment (or more) and DO SOMETHING to show our appreciation for those who have been lost.


Have you participated in Rolling Thunder?  How did you commemorate the lives of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day? Please share your RESPECTFUL comments below.


  1. I'm an Indian but I live in the US and I must say Rolling Thunder sounds like a wonderful organization and a way to celebrate the heroes. I'll be sure to spread the message around and engage in a more meaningful manner next year. Thanks for this!


  2. So true shopping sales does not honor lost ones on Memorial Day.

  3. My aunt was telling me about how she would visit my grandpa's grave every memorial day. It makes me feel boring that I don't celebrate it in some meaningful way.

  4. Memorial day is definitely a time to remember our fallen heroes and those that currently serve our military. I definitely think that the it's become commercialized and glossed over. Great points.

  5. Good to know the history behind the Memorial Day. Like you said, freedom come with a price. And I imagine, the event must be very happening with thousand of motorbikes around. Wow!