Today I had the honor to join in the 15th Annual Ride of the Patriots and the 26th Annual Rolling Thunder Run. This was the right way for me to celebrate Memorial Day this year. It was an emotional way to spend the last weekend before I retire from the Coast Guard.
Here's why we do this (from the Rolling Thunder site):
The major function of Rolling Thunder®, Inc. is to publicize the POW-MIA issue: To educate the public that many American Prisoners of War were left behind after all previous wars and to help correct the past and to protect the future Veterans from being left behind should they become Prisoners Of War-Missing In Action. We are committed to helping American Veterans from all wars. Rolling Thunder®, Inc. is a non-profit organization and everyone donates his or her time because they believe in the POW/MIA Issue that we are working on.
As the motorcycles gathered on Fairfax Boulevard near Patriot Harley Davidson, I already felt a sense of being part of something big. Thousand of bikes lined up four abreast for more than a mile down the road. A few were still on active duty, many were veterans, but all were gathered for a cause greater than themselves: to raise awareness for those who gave their lives in service to their country, or who are still POW's and MIA's. It felt like a few thousands friends gathered for a holy purpose. Before we left, one rider told me that no matter where I park, make sure to walk over to where the first bikes to leave are staged. There I'd find a man who demonstrates as a POW imprisoned in a cage.
The trip from Fairfax to the staging area at the Pentagon was something special. As we were escorted the police, many gathered at overpasses to wave and show support. Many brought their flags, their kids, their smiles, their love. Those were the ones who planned to watch the parade of motorcycles. At every ramp to Route 66, we also saw folks who had not planned to be stopped. Cars lined up behind police motorcycle officers who blocked every exit. But I didn't see a single person who seemed upset by the wait. Most got out of their cars. Many covered their hearts as bikes with big flags rumbled by. I was moved by the mutual demonstration of support among so many strangers.
It took a while to get 400,000 or so bikes parked at the Pentagon. But I've never met a more patient group of people. Maybe it's because we knew that once we parked, we'd just be waiting until the first bikes to leave at noon. Then we'd each wait our turn to leave over the next few hours. Maybe riders are patient because waiting takes on a special meaning at Rolling Thunder.
We ride to raise awareness for those who are waiting. We raise awareness for those POW's and MIA's who are waiting to be returned home.
During the morning, I chatted with folks I'd just met and enjoyed the camaraderie of motorcyclists gathered in perfect weather. It was a pleasant way to spend a gorgeous holiday.
Then I took a walk to the bikes staged near the front. I happened upon the man in the cage. The person back in Fairfax who told me about him said he hadn't been able to take a picture. Neither could I. I just didn't seem right. As I paused to watch the man sweating in the cage, exposed to the hot sun, motionless, with longing deeply-set eyes, I could do no more than stand. And watch. And cry.
There was a small container for donations to cover expenses as he travels to raise awareness for the plight of the POW and MIA. As I made a donation, a gentlemen pressed a card in my hand with basic information about Gerald McCullar and the POW Tiger Cage. I'm sure you can use a search engine to find pictures if you'd like. But pictures don't do justice. There's no substitute for seeing a real human being, a real veteran, looking into your eyes from inside a cage. It was a truly haunting site. I'd encourage you to make the trip to the Pentagon next year, see him, and allow yourself to be moved to take action.