On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, as they have done for the past 22 years, thousands of motorcycles rolled from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in a “Ride for Freedom” demonstration. Called Rolling Thunder, the ride pays homage to America’s veterans, remembering in particular those who are prisoners of war or missing in action from all of our nation’s wars.
By 9:30 on Sunday morning, the Pentagon’s North parking lot was a sea of bikes, and they were starting to stage motorcycles in some of the other Pentagon parking lots. Downtown, motorcycles were parked along the route where other Rolling Thunder supporters lined up to watch. Once the riders started riding, they kept coming for hours. At the Reflecting Pool, a program that included speeches by Air Force General Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), and representatives of Rolling Thunder started well before the riders stopped coming.
Rolling Thunder is one of Washington, D.C.’s great events. President Kennedy famously dismissed Washington as a town with “northern charm and southern efficiency,” and that hasn’t changed much. When the Rolling Thunder riders and their supporters arrive in such significant numbers, they send a powerful message. Their message reminds me of events like the March for Life, the Marine Marathon, or the Army Ten Miler in which thousands of people from all across the United States, and some from outside the country, travel to Washington (often from great distances) to speak up for their beliefs and values. Events like these are almost enough to make me reconsider my cynical view of Washington.
Rolling Thunder began in 1987 as an effort to educate the public on POW-MIA issues, with a special focus on those from the Vietnam War. At that time, there were reports that American POWs were still alive in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, even though 591 POWs were repatriated after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973. Those 591 are not easy to reconcile with the 1,205 POWs that North Vietnamese General Tran Van Quang told the Vietnamese Central Committee they were holding in September 1972; a copy of Quang’s report was discovered in the Soviet archives in early 1993. Likewise, the number is not easy to reconcile with the U.S. count of 1,350 captured or missing in action and some 1,200 more reported killed in action and not recovered.
Congress last took a detailed look at the issue in 1992-93, when the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs did its work. That committee “acknowledge[d]” that there was no proof that any U.S. POW had survived, but noted that there was also no “proof that all of those who did not return had died.” It explained, “There is evidence, moreover, that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after Operation Homecoming.” Furthermore, a committee staffer, Sedgwick Tourison, advised the Committee, “Defense Department files contain evidence that at least 59 Americans were — or may have been — taken prisoner and their precise fate is still unclear.” Tourison viewed that number as “the minimum number of possible live POWs” in 1992.
With the bipartisan support of 256 sponsors, House Resolution 111 calls for the establishment of another Select Committee to “conduct a full investigation of all unresolved matters” relating to U.S. personnel who are still unaccounted for from America’s wars since Korea. Notwithstanding that support, the resolution is sitting in the House Rules Committee.
It is now 37 years since the Vietnam War ended and 17 since the Committee issued its report. Rolling Thunder made its first run in 1987, and its major function remains the publicizing of POW/MIA issues. It has also broadened its work to include assisting veterans, including homeless veterans and veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The motorcycles may be loud, but nothing drowns out their message. That Memorial Day message of support for the active and veteran members of our Armed Forces, including those for whom we cannot account, is one to keep in mind all year long.