Rolling Thunder president draws attention to POW/MIA issue

By Greg Miller

Rolling Thunder Tennessee Chapter 4 President Bill Hampton doesn't mind making some noise about one very passionate issue - soldiers who are prisoners-of-war or missing-in-action.
   More attention is being given to locating POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam and Korean conflicts. More than 70,000 Americans remain unaccounted for from World War II, Hampton said. "There are over 92,000 Americans unaccounted for from all wars, a very shocking number, but that's how many there are," he said.
   The major function of Rolling Thunder, Inc., according to the organization's mission statement is, "to publicize the POW/MIA issue, educate the public that many American prisoners of war were left behind after all past wars, and help correct the past and protect current and future veterans from being left behind should they become prisoners of war or missing in action. Rolling Thunder is also committed to helping disabled veterans from all wars."
   "One of the big things that we do at the national level and, of course, that filters all the way down to the grassroots chapter level, is to encourage our federal legislators, senators and congressmen to stay active," Hampton said. "There have been a lot of things hidden, a lot of files shredded in Washington, D.C. of live sightings. They don't want to admit that there may still be some prisoners alive over there. There have been a lot of things done to cover up, and we're just trying to keep the heat on our government to do everything they can do to account for everyone, to follow up on every lead."
   Rolling Thunder has also been instrumental in getting federal legislation passed, including the Missing Service Personnel Act of 1997 and the Bring Them Home Alive Act of 2000.
   "That's the one that helped get Jessica Lynch rescued. That's the one that gives asylum to any foreign national that helps America find a prisoner or somebody like Lynch," said Hampton.
   "At the national level, the big event of the year for Rolling Thunder is the Ride for Freedom into Washington, D.C. It's not a motorcycle ride; it's not a run; it's not a rally. It's a demonstration, and this year was the 27th ride. We stage the motorcycles on the Pentagon Parking lot, and we overflowed this year. There were over a quarter of a million motorcycles in the Pentagon parking lot Sunday morning Memorial Day weekend. There were over 500,000 motorcycles inside the Beltway," Hampton said.
   This year, President Bush invited the national president of Rolling Thunder and several top officers to the White House to have their picture made with him. "They actually got to talk to President Bush about live sightings. It was the first time it has ever gone this high," Hampton said.
   The first Ride for Freedom was held in 1987 and 2,600 motorcycles made the journey.
   Rolling Thunder gets its name from the bombing done by B52s in Vietnam. "The nickname of those bombing runs was Rolling Thunder. Sitting up there in the Pentagon parking lot this year with a hundred thousand already sitting there parked and the thousands and thousands that continued to ride in, it sounded just exactly like a bombing run in Vietnam," said Hampton.
   Chapter 4 held its organizational meeting in December 2002. "We chartered in March 2003 with 63 charter members in less than 90 days." Hampton served three tours of duty in Vietnam during his Army days. "That tells you there was a lot of interest.
   "I was a member of Chapter 3 in Knoxville, and they encouraged me to start a chapter up here in the Tri-Cities in Northeast Tennessee. I had help from the officers in Knoxville and a lot of the members down there helped us get started and, of course, guidance from the national chapter," he said.
   Chapter 4, which has about 115 members, meets monthly at the VFW Post in Johnson City. Sessions include discussion about those still listed as POWs and MIAs, many issues relating to veterans, and local chapter activities.
   "Last year, we donated and raised almost 30 POW/MIA flags within the area, including one at every high school in Carter County," Hampton said.
   The organization participates in various activities at the VA and has "adopted" the Manna House in Johnson City, a homeless shelter where the residents are 70-80 percent veterans.
   Those interested in becoming chapter members must have an interest in the POW/MIA issue and be interested in helping veterans. Members are also expected to give their time. "We don't allow members to join just to say they're a part of it. They have to participate and be active. The dues are $30 a year, and every member must participate in at least six events and/or meetings per year or they're out. We're not big on numbers. We'd like good numbers and like to have a good membership, but we also want quality, working, dedicated members," Hampton said.
   The organization accepts donations and also conducts numerous fundraising efforts. Visitors are welcome to attend monthly meetings. For more information, call 773-3977.