Rolling Thunder's 'Ride for Freedom' comes to VA

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   This is the 16th year veterans and veteran supporters have been riding to Washington, D.C., to remember military prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. Did you ever wonder why the annual "Ride for Freedom," which focuses on the POW/MIA issue, is called "Rolling Thunder"?
   Imagine the sound of 7,000 motorcycles starting up at once.
   Bill Hampton, president of Rolling Thunder Chapter 4 Tennessee, will lead a group of around 25 local motorcyclists in a gleaming sea of chrome and iron when the group joins thousands of other veteran supporters in a ride from the Pentagon to The Wall in Washington, D.C., over Memorial Day Weekend.
   Randy Lingerfelt, veterans service officer for Carter County, said the local chapter will join with "Run For the Wall-Southern Route" riders from California as they pass by May 21.
   "They're going to stop and do a wreath-laying ceremony at the VA Cemetery. It's going to start on or about 12:20 p.m. -- they've got it down to the minute. After that, Chapter 4 is going to sponsor a lunch break for all of the Rolling Thunder riders who are rolling through. Then we're going to depart around 2 p.m. and head toward Washington, D.C.," said Lingerfelt, who will be riding his 1999 Harley-Davidson Road King.
   "We're expecting somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 motorcycles locally," he said. The riders will visit with veteran patients at the VA Medical Center in Johnson City, where veterans and the public can view the motorcycles parked in the employee parking lot located behind the VA Domiciliary.
   Around 2 p.m., riders will depart for Wytheville, Va., where they will conduct a flag-raising ceremony, Lingerfelt said. "We stay all night there and then we go to Stanton, Va.," where they will visit another VA hospital. "Then we head to Washington, D.C., and get there on the 23rd," he said.
   In Washington, Rolling Thunder has organized a schedule of events that begins Friday evening with a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and ends Sunday afternoon with a demonstration from the Pentagon to the Lincoln Memorial, where a rally and musical tribute will take place by the Reflecting Pool.
   "Rolling Thunder is made up of veteran support people. You don't even have to be a veteran. The Run for the Wall was a protest about the POW/MIA issue and now it's become an annual event," Lingerfelt said.
   According to Chapter 4's Hampton, "The interest in Rolling Thunder, the POW/MIA issue, veterans rights and assistance to the area homeless population has been nothing short of phenomenal. We started organizing this chapter in December 2002 and in less than 90 days had signed 63 charter members."
   Last year's "Ride for Freedom" rally attracted an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 veterans and supporters.
   Artie Muller, executive director of Rolling Thunder, said, "This current war with Iraq reminds us that Rolling Thunder's work will never be complete until we bring home every soldier who's captive or missing in this war or was left behind in any past war. ... We will never forget them or allow our government to forget them. And we will ensure that our veterans receive the benefits they were promised."
   For more information on the event or the local Rolling Thunder chapter, contact Hampton at (423) 773-3977 or visit the Web site at www.rollingthunder1.com.