WASHINGTON, (Army News Service, May 31, 2011) -- Rolling Thunder brought over 400,000 members and non-members on motorcycles to celebrate their Ride for Freedom on Sunday, May 29, 2011.
The group has rolled their thunderous motorcycles through the streets of DC since 1987 to show their continued support for the efforts to find lost servicemen and women of past conflicts.
Thousands of supporters lined the streets from the Memorial Bridge, down Constitution Ave. and back along Independence Ave. to cheer them along on their 24-year struggle to bring them home.
Participants from over 90 chapters across the United States and Canada, joined forces at the Pentagon early on Sunday morning to await the noon awakening of their “Ride for Freedom” to Thunder Alley, beginning at 22nd Street and Constitution Ave.
Held annually in Washington, D.C., during the Memorial Day weekend, Rolling Thunder calls for the government's recognition and protection of Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action.
According to the Rolling Thunder website, 1,702 Americans are missing in Vietnam. Since the war ended more than 6,000 reports about Americans still alive in Southeast Asia have been received by the government.
The POW/MIA numbers from other wars are: World War I -- 3,350; World War II -- 78,753; Korea -- 8,170; and the Persian Gulf -- 2.
But riding in this annual parade isn't the only thing these dedicated members accomplish.
Sgt. First Class Jose Osvaldo Rodriguez, who has served with the National Guard since September 1994 and served in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, is a member of Virginia Chapter 3, Art Foss Memorial Chapter, based in Dumfries, Va.
"We serve at burials for our fallen comrades, enjoy cookouts with wounded Soldiers and veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital and Richmond (Va.) VA Hospital, join the Manassas Veteran's Day Parade, and distribute food baskets to Soldiers during Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Rodriguez, who is still on Active Duty.
They also help clean the Vietnam Memorial wall area and collect artifacts left by visitors once a month, a tradition that began during the pouring of the foundation in 1982.
That year, an unidentified naval officer stepped over the construction barrier, threw his deceased brother's Purple Heart into the wet cement, and saluted. Since then, thousands of letters and tokens have joined that Purple Heart, not in the cement, but near the name of their loved one.
Each night, rangers of the National Park Service tag each item, record the area where it was placed, and ship the items to a climate-controlled archive. Although the archive is not open to the public, a selection of the items is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
The Rodriguez family continues their own tradition by having proudly served this country for many years.
"My father, retired Master Sgt. Jose O. Rodriguez, served in Vietnam with the 1st Signal Brigade from 1967 through 1969 and my brother, Rey Vega, served in the Navy aboard the USS Nimitz. I'm continuing our family tradition in the military because I like it and I feel really proud serving my country," Rodriguez said.
The Art Foss Memorial Chapter received their charter on September 8, 1999," said President Molly Foss, whose husband Art was the first president of the chapter until 2010.
Art served two tours in Vietnam, serving 20 years until his retirement with the rank of Sergeant First Class. He was Rolling Thunder's national senior director, working tirelessly through the 2010 Memorial Day coordination. He lost his battle with cancer Sept. 12, 2010.
"There are no restrictions on membership, and while the majority of our members ride motorcycles, we are not a motorcycle club, nor do you even need a cycle to join. You only have to be a man, woman or child who is dedicated to our mission and willing to donate your time and effort to see that it is accomplished,” she said.
Rolling Thunder, named after Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign against communist North Vietnam from 1965-1968, was founded by Artie Muller in 1987.
Since then, it hasn't stopped growing or helping to shape our nation's future.
Rolling Thunder was influential in the passing of the Missing Service Personnel Act of 1993. This bill states that a servicemember cannot be listed as Killed in Action without substantial evidence. Rolling Thunder co-sponsored this bill with 390 signatures making it the first of many accomplishments.
Rolling Thunder continues to work with the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on new bills for the return and information of servicemen and women.
In 2006, the group co-authored the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, which prohibits protests, such as those of Fred Phelps and his independent Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas from taking place near funeral proceedings for fallen military personnel. They also sponsor search missions into Southeast Asia for POW/MIAs and the remains of those killed in action.
"We can never forget our POWs and our brothers and sisters who gave their lives for our freedom," Rodriguez said, echoing the thoughts and prayers of more than 7,500 members throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.