Rolling Thunder ensures POWs/MIAs not forgotten

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   For Sonny Mottern and Wright Swanay of Elizabethton, both prisoners of war during World War II, Wednesday's wreath-laying at the VA/Mountain Home Cemetery by members of Rolling Thunder held special meaning.
   "Rolling Thunder is in support of the POW/MIA issue, and, of course, being POWs, we're real interested in it and we support them 100 percent. That's the reason we're standing in the rain to see them off," Mottern said.
   Mottern spent 132 days as a prisoner of war in Germany, while Swanay was held 10 months after being shot down just outside Budapest, Hungary.
   "You've seen that movie, 'The Great Escape,' with Steve McQueen?" Swanay asked. "I was in that camp." He met Mottern while being held prisoner, "and in just a short while we got liberated by General Patton," Swanay said.
   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. The ride will culminate with a series of events, including a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Friday evening, a Sunday afternoon demonstration from the Pentagon to the Lincoln Memorial, and a rally and musical tribute by the reflecting pool.
   Thursday's wreath-laying was to have been an event that went off like clockwork. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and riders rolled in well over 30 minutes late. But nobody seemed to mind.
   Veterans such as Mottern and Swanay shared war stories beneath a leafy canopy of trees, while early arrivals from Chapter 3 (Knoxville) chatted with riders from Rolling Thunder's local Chapter 4. Bill Hampton, Chapter 4 president, pulled three tours of Vietnam. When asked why, Hampton said, "By going back two more times it got me out of the Army five months early."
   Hampton will lead more than 20 local riders about 400 miles one way to D.C., he said, "but we're going to be making a detour and riding over to West Virginia tomorrow [Thursday]. It's a real tiny town that adopted the other 'Run For the Wall' group out of California, called the Central Route. This is the Southern Route coming through here today.
   "It's a big thing for that little town. They have a parade, they feed them lunch, they turn out school -- it's their event of the year to host these guys," Hampton said.
   Jack Everhardt of Elizabethton, who works for Disabled American Veterans as hospital services coordinator for Mountain Home, and his 12-year-old daughter, Heather, are making their first Run For The Wall. "It's going to be emotional when we get up there, and I know that. But it heals, and that's what it's supposed to do," he said.
   Heather, a cheerleader at Happy Valley Middle School, is also a junior member of Rolling Thunder. "I think it's going to be sad," she said. But according to her dad, "She's my trooper. It's a father-daughter thing, and hopefully she'll have memories that will last a lifetime."
   Mark Hutchins, first district commander of DAV and also a member of Chapter IV, will be following in a support vehicle. "I'm driving a pickup truck with a big 16-foot trailer behind me, so if anyone breaks down we'll load them on the trailer and make sure they get to the next repair place," he said.
   Nearly everyone in the informal gathering snapped to attention as the long-awaited riders thundered into the VA Cemetery, escorted by Tennessee Highway Patrol. The rain did not subside.
   All was quiet as John Malone of Perry, Fla., placed a colorful wreath of flowers at the flag pole on the cemetery grounds, accompanied by Ken Rule and Doug Taylor of Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Rule is VA director. A prayer was offered for those who gave their lives and for those still unaccounted.
   Afterward, with rain dripping down his face, his hair soaked, Malone said, "I think this is great. It's a tribute to the POWs and MIAs. It's just sad until everybody's accounted for."
   Laurie Clay, "Run For the Wall" Virginia-D.C. coordinator, said she first got started with the run around 1996-97 while living in Colorado. Clay, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division during the Gulf War, and her husband both are disabled vets.
   Clay said she rides to bring awareness to the fact that not all Americans who served in U.S. conflicts made it home. "I ride, to make sure our public remembers that we need to bring our men and women home. We need to make sure that our children understand what a veteran is and what a POW/MIA is."
   The event in Washington is "kind of a welcome home for everybody," she said. "If you've never been to that parade, it's a celebration. It's a parade for those guys and gals that never got it the first time around. That's what Rolling Thunder is all about."
   Scott Golden, state director of Rolling Thunder Inc., is a retired Navy man who found himself in boot camp two days after he turned 17. Four months later, he was in Vietnam. He now has a son who will turn 17 this fall.
   "The reason a lot of us are here is not only to remember and help heal some wounds from the past, but also to ensure the future. According to Golden, there are still more than 1,900 military personnel missing from Vietnam. Counting all U.S. conflicts, "We have over 92,000 missing. We lobby Congress and we petition and we help write bills to where we ensure that everybody is accounted for in the future," he said.
   Last year, Sen. Bill Campbell wrote the "Bring Them Home Alive Act."
   "Rolling Thunder was a very heavy driving force to lobby this to get it passed," Golden said. "The lawyer that walked six miles, that helped bring [Iraqi POW] Jessica Lynch home, knew that that bill would give him asylum. He's now here working for a lobby group up in Washington. So in some way, we have already made a difference and we're hoping to make more differences in the future."
   Jim Mulsand, chaplain of Chapter 3, and wife Sandra have been participating in the run for 10 years. "One of our missions is to draw attention to veteran issues, and especially how it affects veterans' families. We care very much about Gold Star moms," he said, or mothers who have lost a son to war.
   "We take Gold Star moms up to Washington as guests of Rolling Thunder," he said. Sandra Mulsand will leave today to transport a mother from Chattanooga to the Run For The Wall.
   Another Gold Star mother present Wednesday was Linda Davis of Watauga, mother of Jefferson Donald "Donnie" Davis, who died Dec. 5, 2001, in Afghanistan as a result of "friendly fire."
   Mulsand said it is a comfort sometimes for mothers such as Mrs. Davis "to know that their sons are always remembered. We are not going to forget. When it says 'You are not forgotten' below the POW/MIA symbol -- we are not going to forget," he said.
   Davis attended Wednesday's ceremony along with her family. As the motorcycles cranked up and roared off into the distance, Davis said she was in awe that these riders would "take this time out of their life and do this for these POWs and Missing in Action. I really respect them. It brings on a whole new meaning of Harley riders."
   Donnie, himself a Harley rider, "would really love it," she said.