STORY AND PHOTOS BY GARRETT STANLEY:
I am not a military veteran, but most of my family members are. All of the men who stood at my wedding are Marines. I’ve heard the stories about the bonds of brotherhood (and sisterhood) and felt the loyalty that they all describe as part of their experience. When someone mentions a fallen comrade who didn’t make it home from battle, there is a universal pause and a moment of reflection before a smile and maybe a story about being young, far away from home and maybe a little careless.
Last spring, my friend, Micki, called and asked what we were doing for Memorial Day weekend. Since my wife and I had no plans, Micki sealed our fate, saying, “We’re going to Washington, D.C., for Rolling Thunder!”
Rolling Thunder is an organization that brings together motorcyclists from around the country to come to our nation’s capital for a demonstration to honor our veterans, patriots, and Gold Star families as well as our Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. Thousands of motorcyclists attend each year, some riding in from as far as Alaska, California, and Oregon.
Micki, my friend Debbie, my wife Mandy, and I saddled up and started our trek from Texas to Washington, D.C. Over the course of the three-day journey, we went through Northern Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and then continued through Tennessee and Virginia. As a native Texan, I expected late May to bring heat and more heat. But on this ride, there were times we were glad we had long sleeves and jackets.
We stayed with a close friend of Micki’s named David in Arlington, Virginia. David was an amazing host and tour guide, taking us around Northern Virginia and into Maryland. We enjoyed great Italian food in Arlington before riding the three miles or so into D.C.
I had never before been to Washington, D.C. The thing that struck me was how beautiful the tall trees were. Everything was so green. And then the architecture grabbed me: gorgeous homes more than 100 years old lining streets.
On the Friday night of Memorial Day Weekend, there is a special ceremony for the wives of fallen men who served during the war in Vietnam. As night fell, the National Mall took on a whole new appearance. The shadows emphasized details of the monument. Sounds around us were more acute. I heard men weeping, as they stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in their leather jackets, touching some of the names of the more than 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in service that are etched into the gabbro wall. Many visitors had tears streaming down their faces. Women stood hugging each other, looking at the place in the wall where their loved ones’ names were carved. People also visited the Three Soldiers bronze statue and the nearby Vietnam Women’s Memorial, sculpted by Lubbock native Glenna Goodacre.
Across the Mall, the Korean War Veterans Memorial is a beautiful and breathtaking site, especially at night. The Academy black granite from California preserves more than 2,500 photographic images sandblasted into the rock representing all of the land-sea-and-air troops who fought that war. Nineteen stainless steel statutes of soldiers dressed in full combat gear appear almost out of nowhere, their eyes following you. It is a startling sight. I joined hundreds of others who walked around the memorial and read in silence the words and the names carved into it. The Pool of Remembrance, a shallow reflecting pool lined in black granite, reflected the moonlight. An outer granite wall bears the simple message: “Freedom isn’t free.”
A feeling of gratitude overcame me as I realized that I walk around in a country surrounded by men and women who have fought for the freedoms I enjoy every day. It was humbling to be among heroic people who weren’t just remembering veterans on Memorial Day: these are people who never forget their fellow soldiers and those who have passed away, many in faraway lands.
The next day was Saturday. We spent most of the day playing tourist. I had not realized that the Smithsonian is comprised of 19 museums, nine research centers, and a zoo. Lines for some of the museums were around the block. It was eye-opening to see so many people, like me, who are interested in our country’s history and cultures.
On Sunday, we prepared for the Rolling Thunder ride. This is a demonstration, not a parade, as the organizers explained. Thousands of bikes were parked in the Pentagon north parking lot and on any available real estate nearby. David told us that organizers begin allowing bikers into the lot at 8 a.m., and that people would be riding in continuously until noon, when the demonstration would begin.
I spoke with some of the riders waiting around us. Some had been coming to Washington, D.C., for Rolling Thunder for 20 years. Others, like myself, were making their first visit. Many told stories of the men and women they had served with and of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Oddly, no one spoke of themselves or their service; they only talked about the folks they were there to honor and remember. I met a few riders who had brought a son or daughter with them, so they could show them the memorials and try to explain what they stood for and the cost paid for each name carved in stone.
Organizers had estimated that about 200,000 bikes would participate in the ride. David told me that the ride would run constantly from noon until about 4 p.m. I could not fathom that many bikes in one place. (For the record, I took the first photograph of the ride at 12:01 p.m. and my last image at 3:47 p.m., and the bikes were still rolling when I quit shooting.)
Until you witness the Rolling Thunder demonstration ride in person, you just can’t imagine its power . . . and noise. Four bikes wide, row after row, engines pounding for four-plus hours. Men, women, and children of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities lined the streets. Thousands of people waved the American flag or the black POW/MIA flag. Smiles, hands waving, continuous applause—it was a breathtaking experience.
There was joy and sadness at the same time; a tremendous rush of what it is like to be American, and to belong to a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of motorcyclists, honoring your country, and those who have fought for the freedoms we were all enjoying that very day. I saw a young woman kneeling in a field of flags, planting her own flag to honor a loved one who had not come home from war. I saw many servicemen and women, dressed in uniform, saluting the Rolling Thunder riders. Riders would pull up in front of these service people, come to a stop, stand up, and salute. Then they’d ride on. It touched me in a way I had not expected.
When a friend calls and says, “What are you doing for Memorial Day Weekend? Let’s go to Rolling Thunder in D.C.,” my advice is to clear your calendar. And ride.
For more information visit rollingthunder1.com