Rolling Thunder: Destination Patriotism

The Wall

News reports last week indicate that 2019 will be the final year of the massive motorcycle rally.

Rolling Thunder is a subset of Vietnam-era and other veterans and their supporters who love motorcycles and any opportunity to ride them.

For many, these motorcycles have become a potent symbol of veteran solidarity and patriotism.

One Rolling Thunder veteran/rider observed that it all began as these veterans reached the age of the mid-life crisis which coincided with the resurgence in the popularity of Harley-Davidson.

Buy a bike, be young again, rediscover your veteran roots and come to D.C. in May.

That same Rolling Thunder veteran also pointed out that many of these riders are “aging out” and that perhaps two-wheeling, at least, was coming to an end, anyway.

Rolling Thunder became a cultural phenomenon which used the war memorials in part as a destination, albeit with a purpose.

But beware when cultural phenomona morph into values shorthand, especially patriotism and love of country; suddenly, failure to be less than fully enthusiastic about Rolling Thunder means you are an enemy of the people.

Most Vietnam veterans don’t ride motorcycles and instead, express their patriotism and sense of duty quietly and privately.

Suggesting that the end of Rolling Thunder is the end of veteran veneration is like suggesting that there is no Thanksgiving without the Macy’s Day Parade.

We all love the giant blow-up figures but the connection ends there.

The true substance of military service should not be reduced to two-wheels and a loud exhaust, in symbol or in fact.

When you see the sorrowful reaction by many to the demise of Rolling Thunder for ostensibly patriotic reasons, it becomes easy to see how a supposedly intelligent society can be led astray with clever symbols and rhetoric.

To those in Rolling Thunder mourning, I have a suggestion.

Gather up your friends, relatives and neighbors and come down to the war memorials most any day and you will likely see one or more Honor Flights, groups of aging veterans from all wars, brought here to see the country they protected and how we collectively say thanks to them.

Take the kids up to one of them and introduce yourselves, they all wear name tags, so it is very easy.

When you shake their hand, hang onto it or drape an arm across their shoulder.

Ask the vet to tell you when and where they served; it might take awhile for them to answer as sometimes, well into their 90’s, memories can be faulty.

Listen to their story.

Take some photos and say “thank you.”

More often than you would think, your kind words and attention will cause that old soldier to dip his head, furrow his brow and cry.

But it’s okay, those are tears of remembrance, pride, and thanks and you were the instrument that made it happen.

That’s patriotism revealed by the genuine interest of a kind heart.

By the way, their rides have two wheels, too – they just have to be pushed.


  • Dan says:

    Eric, I have to say I think you kind of missed the mark on this one. Many of those who ride in Rolling Thunder do come into Washington to see the memorials, without having to come in with the Ride. My wife and I have been to D.C. several times (only once on the bike, and it was after Rolling Thunder), and frequent the memorials (my wife is an army vet, as well as a retired IAFF fire fighter). Bikers show their patriotism both on and off two wheels. I am a retired IAFF fire fighter, and belong to a fire fighter motorcycle club. We ride to show support for the things we believe in, and show solidarity to those causes/beliefs. Bikers understand solidarity even better than many IAFF members (maybe hard to fathom, but true). They are disappointed because Rolling Thunder is an opportunity for them, as bikers, to come together and show support, as a group. A way to say, “Hey veterans, we’ve got your back.” I understand your comparison to Thanksgiving and the parade, but it’s not the same. Bikers get a bad rap sometimes, but in reality, they are some of the most caring and supportive people out there. And they like doing it as a group. Yes, they can still show up and show support as individuals, but they’ll miss the ride, and the solidarity and support that comes with it. Stay safe.

  • Bob Gray says:

    Eric, I agree with you. The bikes will be missed, but not the commitment and sacrifice symbolized. The Honor Flights continue. So does our enduring appreciation, respect and gratitude.

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