Memorial Day weekend, Washington, D. C., an overcast sky that doesn’t quite suggest the scorchingly hot day ahead. Standing on the DC side of the Memorial Bridge at noon with an expectant crowd along the barriers and covering the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a faint rumble can be heard from the direction of Arlington National Cemetery, on the other side of the Potomac.
Soon a phalanx of police motorcycles comes rumbling over the bridge and around the corner. Followed by another. Then nothing for about 5 minutes. A formation of US Air Force fighters flies by overhead, in tight formation, with roars of approval from the crowd. Silence. Then a formation of geese flies by overhead, almost in parody of the Air Force – and again the crowd roars with applause and laughter.
At about 6 minutes past noon, the next motorcycles roar around the corner in what will eventually become a 3-hour-long continuous “parade” of bikes of all types, some festooned with American flags, Marine Corps flags, and POW/MIA flags. This is the twenty-fourth running of “Rolling Thunder” – an event that began with 2,500 Vietnam veteran riders to bring attention to the plight of prisoners of war and those missing in action. Now it has swelled to 250,000 motorcycles, coming from as far away as California and beyond, a gesture of unity and support, not just for POW/MIA, but also for veterans in general.
Many of the riders are clearly veterans, but everyone is clearly welcome. From the most tricked-out Harleys and luxury motorcycles – many of which are more of a car than my own auto – to an occasional city scooter, this is an impressive show of support for a small slice of the American population that often falls between the cracks. The dull roar and waves to the crowd continue nonstop as the riders make their way around the far end of the National Mall, finally ending up in an endless motorcycle parking lot near the Korean War Memorial. From there, many of the riders will take the opportunity to visit the Vietnam Memorial – to remember, to reflect, and to pay their respects to their fellow countrymen who gave everything for a war that took place years ago, but remains firmly burned into the national consciousness.
America continues to heal the wounds of the Vietnam War, even as we continue to fight two – or three – others. The inevitable comparison is made, of course. But politics aside, events like these are an opportunity to think about the sacrifices that are made by such a small proportion of our population. Take a moment to thank a veteran. And never forget.