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Monday, May 30, 2011

Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom" 2011

A detail from the Korean War Veterans Memorial

Memorial Day Weekend. For many in America it's a time for family get-togethers, taking the boat to the lake or river, soaking up the sun's rays or taking advantage of the many Memorial Day sales. For those who have served or had family and friends serve in the military, and who have paid the price of that service, Memorial Day has a purer purpose as intended when it began at the end of America's Civil War - to honor the nation's war dead. (See the op-ed piece published in the New York Times today for a fuller history of the day's origins. )

Yesterday, I was honored to ride with thousands of other bikers in the 24th annual Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom." The first ride was initiated by returning Vietnam veterans in 1988 to publicize POW and MIA issues - that's Prisoners of War and Missing in Action for those unfamiliar with military acronyms. About 2,500 bikes took part in a ride through Washington, D.C., that inaugural year and organizers vowed to keep riding until "all POW/MIAs were accounted for.

The flag I flew behind my bike gave sobering statistics for anyone unaware of how many of America's military have never been accounted for:
  • WWI           3,345
  • WWII        78,573
  • Cold War        120
  • Korea           8,107
  • Vietnam        1,716
  • Iraqi                    1
  • Afghanistan         1

Bringing attention to the plight of POW/MIAs

I am not from the U.S.A. and I have never served in the military, although my Irish father served as a sailor, as did two brothers in the New Zealand Navy. But I have nothing but admiration for those who are willing to put their lives on the line in the service of their country, regardless of whether they believe the politics of whichever flavor is in power at the time. I respect those who have taken an oath and stand by it and who give up many of their own freedoms to ensure those of others. I have many friends and some family members in the military and although I would be a pacifist in an ideal world, this is not an ideal world.

I rode not to support this nation's politics and my thoughts on that are obvious in previous posts. I rode to honor the service of the friends I rode alongside - a retired Navy Seal and an active-duty Navy nurse - and the service of the hundreds of thousands of veterans and active-duty military riders who also took part. I rode to honor the service of the young friends I have seen return from war damaged in body and/or soul and those I never met who never returned.

I was humbled by the turnout, although my friends estimated it was slightly less than last year's estimated 500,000 bikes. (To put that in perspective, Jeju Island, South Korea, where I lived last year, has a population of just over 500,000. Add the number of bikes that carried passengers and more people rode last year than lived on my entire 712-square-mile island.)

A view of the Pentago North Parking Lot, with the Pentagon behind

We arrived more than four hours early to stage our bikes in the Pentagon North Parking Lot, but thousands of bikes were there before us, and many more followed. Despite Washington providing a hot, humid day, riders waited for hours for the noon departure, after which they started rolling out across the Arlington Memorial Bridge, down Constitution Avenue towards the Capitol Building, 3rd Street to Independence Avenue and around the National Mall before ending near the Lincoln Memorial. Despite two and sometimes three columns of bikes riding in close formation, it took more than 90 minutes for us to leave the parking lot and bikes were still rolling around the Mall more than three hours later.

I was more humbled by the thousands of spectators that lined the route, waving flags, holding signs of support and thanks to veterans, applauding, waving, slapping hands with passing riders and saluting. The ride was not only a chance for riders to support their own, but for everyone and the spectators were of every age and racial background.

(I apologize for the length of this post, but there is a lot to write about.)

Once we stopped and parked we joined the spectators to cheer on those still riding in, then visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. There were many times during the day when I choked up and had to wipe away tears - the following are the most memorable.

The Lone Marine: My friends, who were riding Rolling Thunder for the third time, had told me of the Marine who stood at attention in full dress uniform as the ride goes by. I'd been told that seeing him would be a spine-tingling experience and they were right. Having done a little research this morning, I'm even more in awe of this Marine. A friend wondered if different Marines took the station each hour, knowing how difficult it is to hold a salute for an extended length of time. They don't. Retired Marine Sgt Tim Chambers has held the post since 2002 and according to this report, did so this year with a broken wrist.

The wounded veteran: I am sure there were many along the route but after we parked and dismounted, a young man rolled up beside us not on a bike but in a wheelchair. He was a double amputee with other bandages on his arms. The Vietnam vet on the other side of him (you know who many bikers are and what they believe in by the patches on their vests) shook his hand and thanked him for his sacrifice. Many of the riders who saw him as they passed saluted him.

Those who came home: Visiting the Vietnam Wall is a sobering and emotional experience. The reflective granite structure lists the names of more than 58,000 combat casualties, about 1,200 of whom the Wall's Web site states are still listed as missing. Family and friends leave mementoes, photos and letters in front of the panels, and many take pencil and paper rubbings of their loved one's name. I witnessed grizzled old bikers wearing "Vietnam Vet" patches in tears before the Wall.

The Vietnam Wall and Memorial statue

The Korean War Veterans Memorial: Having spent many years in South Korea, where New Zealanders also died as part of the United Nations contingent, and having been an associate member of the United Nations Command Officers' Mess, this memorial is of deep personal interest to me. As with the Vietnam Wall and associated sculpture, visiting the Korean Memorial was a moving experience.

A detail from the Korean War Veterans Memorial

What did NOT impress me:

Being informed by the Rolling Thunder organizers that the Pentagon objects to its parking lots being used as a staging point for this ride: One would hope that the Pentagon would support this purpose more than any other organization but it seems that is not so. I joined many other riders in signing a petition in support of Rolling Thunder's staging point staying where it is, and will try to find if there is an online petition people can join.

Sarah Palin using Rolling Thunder for political purposes, and the media coverage today: Shortly before the ride began I passed a media scrum but could not see who was in the middle and continued wandering among the bikes instead. This morning, while searching online and in print for an estimate of rider numbers, I instead found multiple articles about Ms. Palin and family kicking off their tour of the Northeast by joining the ride. I can't vote in America so my political views are moot, but I object to any politician co-opting a worthy cause for their own reasons. This morning's media coverage focused on the Palin sideshow rather than the POW/MIA issue, as I have no doubt she and her advisers knew it would.

Those are minor quibbles on what was a day I will never forget.

To all who serve and have served, on this Memorial Day 2011, We Salute You!


  1. Thanks for your support.

  2. Thank you for your service Thomas

  3. Beautiful girlie. A three kleenex read!!