Memorial Day is the United States federal holiday set aside to honor fallen service men and women. It takes place on the last Monday of May.
Over the years, it has expanded to become a day to remember all lost loved ones. Across the country, people use this long weekend to spend time with family and friends and to visit cemeteries in memorial.
For some, there is no cemetery to pay a visit to. For many brave servicemen and women who endured the loss of fellow service members there is no cemetery to gather collectively at and leave behind a flower or stone. And so to ensure that those who gave their lives protecting our country are not forgotten, many come to the Nation’s Capital for a memorial of their own.
On Memorial Day weekend, the Washington, D.C. area plays host to hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders. Some are veterans, some are reservists, and some are just supporters of our troops but they all have one thing in common – they ride to take part in the Rolling Thunder demonstration.
Since the first ride in 1987, the goal of Rolling Thunder has been to bring awareness to the plight of American Prisoners of War (POWs) and those Missing in Action (MIA). That first year 2500 motorcycles rode through the streets of D.C. This year the number will likely top 250,000.
Memorial Day weekend Sunday, riders assemble in one of the Pentagon parking lots. For those who stay outside of town, the area’s HOV (high-occupancy vehicles) lanes are opened up for motorcycles only to allow them a quick and easy trip to the assembly point. Each year, some dedicated area residents line the overpasses above the HOV lanes and wave and cheer as the motorcycles pass by them below. This year the groups ranged from a few people holding signs to members of local Fire Departments with their vehicles draped in the American flag honking in support of the riders.
Starting at the North Pentagon Parking lot at Noon, the riders follow a route that takes them into D.C., past several of the city’s monuments and end by the Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials where they can pay their respects and a program takes place. It takes several hours for all the riders to reach the end point as this moving display makes its way through the city.
Though the atmosphere along the route may have the feeling of a parade with observers lining the streets waving flags and banners; this is a demonstration. The difference is more than semantics. Parades require permits. As Rolling Thunder National Member Tom D’Alessio explained, “Permits can be denied. This is a demonstration. The right to demonstrate is protected by the constitution.”
Between the roar of the crowds awaiting the riders and the roar of the bikes as they approach, it is an overpowering and emotional experience for participants and spectators alike.
This sentiment is difficult to put into words for the riders, like Tom D’Alessio who said, “No words or pictures can accurately convey the feelings and emotion that I have when I come across that bridge into the city. Seeing the Lincoln Memorial, the crowds getting bigger, the cheering, the waving and horn blowing. Sensory over load is the only way to describe it.”
Sensory overload is an apt description. This year the riders were met with hot and humid conditions in the nation’s capital. But that didn’t stop them from showing up nor did it discourage D.C. area residents and visitors from turning out to show their support for these brave men and women.
Having traveled from the southeastern Ohio area, Don Wyckoff Sgt, Military Police, described the mixture of emotions as well. “This is an event that is solemn to the veterans in the group for lost friends,” he said. “But the mood is uplifting and a time to celebrate what we have won for ourselves by serving, and losing so many of our brothers while also remembering those left behind (MIA’S).”
A Vietnam Veteran, Wyckoff suffered the all-too-familiar homecoming that so many from that war seem to have experienced, “I remember my homecoming and ‘nothing,’” he recounted. “My buddies from home and college welcomed me back with open arms, but the general public seemed to have an attitude which was ‘stay back – say nothing’ and this always bothered me.”
Things bothered him so much that last year was the first year that Wyckoff felt comfortable making his trek to the Vietnam Memorial to look up the names of fellow service members on the wall. He served as an MP in the 18th Brigade, 95th Battalion, 615th Company in 1971. Now he serves as the current Group Director of Borderline Harley Owners, a HOG Chapter based out of the mid-Ohio Valley area, where the Ohio and West Virginia borders meet. In total his group consisted of 25 people on 16 bikes who made the trip to D.C. from Williamstown, West Virginia.
While some come for reunion or personal reflection, others come to remind fellow Americans as well as the federal government about on-going issues facing our veterans. As D’Alessio put it, “Our organizations and many others keep organizing rallies such as this one and volunteering at VA hospitals and lobbying for veterans issues and rights. To me this weekend’s events help to remind the people that run the government that there are many people that care about how veterans are treated and that they honor their commitment to the men and women that defend our country.”
D’Alessio also reflected more on the day’s mood saying, “I think it is an expression of solidarity with veterans and their family. A show of support to those that have served and paid with their life. Upbeat is a better description. It can somber sometimes especially when you realize that every day there are more and more veterans that need our help. Each year there a few faces that are not with us anymore.”
Alexandria, Virginia resident Rob Webster LCDR, USNR added, “Everyone is touched differently. A reunion for some, a welcome home for many, an opportunity to show support to those that serve from those that did not. And despite having issues with how the government has treated veterans there remains an out pouring of pride for the USA that is missing in many parts of this country.”
Whatever may be missing in the parts of the country was present at the Vietnam Memorial this weekend. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who said she felt that “the politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service and their lives.” She kept the design elegantly simple to “allow everyone to respond and remember.”
This weekend and every Memorial Day weekend provides all Americans whether in D.C. or at their hometown parade to do just that – respond and remember. It is as Webster put it, a day for all Americans, “From those that never saw combat to those that saw the worst of it. To those that never came home and especially to those left behind…Rolling Thunder to me is showing the country, our government, that we support our fellow service men and women.”
D’Alessio put the day’s events in context well when he said, “It can be energizing. Half to three quarters of a million people with the same cause in mind in one place at the same time. How can you not be at least a little energized?!”
How indeed. The day definitely has an energy about it. To witness it all left me feeling part somber, part excited and completely proud to be an American.