Rolling Thunder: Remembering the true meaning of Memorial Day

Rolling Thunder has come to town. Photo by WilliamMarlow via creative commons

VIENNA, Va., May 24, 2014 —  With the roar of thousands of big Harleys, Indians, BMWs and more, Rolling Thunder rolled into town last night. The rumble of the bikes clearly resonating across the streets and communities,  heard in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC, and the surrounding suburbs.

For the uninitiated, these arrivals have been going on each and every Memorial Day since 1988, when, fresh after the supposed end of the Vietnam War (or Conflict in governmentese,) the veterans of that era decided it was time to bring the deaths from that war into public light.

Their other desire was to see that the thousands of MIAs, those Missing in Action, were kept alive in the memories of their friends, buddy soldiers, and relatives until each and every single one was finally brought home.

Memorial Day has, ever since, brought the caravan known as Rolling Thunder down to Capitol Hill, around the Pentagon, across bridges between Virginia and the District, flags flying and banners unfurled, to keep the concept of remembering the fallen and the missing alive.

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That first ride in 1988 brought some 2,500 along; this year’s congregation will total 900,000 hardy souls on all sorts of beautiful machines, with their wives and children and friends, including spectators.

They will stay in accommodating downtown motels offering special rates, and in campgrounds out in the suburbs.  The roar of the big Harleys will grate on the nerves of some, but for the most part will remind thousands of the reasons for which they ride.

Downtown there is “Thunder Alley,” where every sort of t-shirt, cap, bumper sticker, pins, bracelets and other types of memorabilia will be for sale.

It also gives those who only dream of taking to the modern day saddle, the time to look at the marvelous machines parked there, to chat with their owners and riders, all of whom are happy to share their background, their connection to the war, where they have come from, and why they ride thousands of miles, taking time off work, leaving families behind, for “the Ride.”

They may look a little different, their hair may be graying and longer, and beards seem to be a mark of the macho look, but they are great men and women, just like any of us.

We owe a major debt of gratitude to the folks of Rolling Thunder, and the chance to be reminded why so many went to war in the sixties, and how many have never come home.

Though the numbers vary depending on which source is contacted, one estimate is that 3% of the 58,000 casualties of the Vietnam conflict remain missing or unaccounted for.  This totals 1,655.

It is for those missing, and those killed in the war, that the mighty Harleys roar, to help people remember what must not be forgotten.

‘The granite slash goes across the Mall

Though thousands see it each year, it is still there.

For some, it goes home with them.

If it follows me home, is it mine?”

You can go to the Vietnam Wall, that expanse of black granite down on the Mall, done by Maya Lin, and see their names etched there for all time.

You can talk with veterans there and hear their stories. The ride will continue through Monday. You can wear the name of a missing soldier. My bracelet bears the name of Capt. Alan Mateja, of Louisville, Ky., lost April 16, 1972.

That is 41 years lost, but not one day forgotten.


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Martha Boltz was a frequent contributor to the long-running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War section in both print and online editions. A regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page dating back to 1994, she is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history." She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."