Rolling Thunder® TN-Chapter 6 members (from left) Billy Laird, Randal Walker and Jackie Laird
They packed their gear, donned their black leather vests bearing significant patches and headed out Thursday shortly after dawn for a trip of a lifetime.
For a handful of local Rolling Thunder® TN-Chapter 6 members, it wasn’t their first ride to Washington D.C. in honor of Memorial Day. For one Vietnam veteran, this inaugural trip would be forever etched in his mind.
Since the local Rolling Thunder® Inc. chapter first formed nearly four years ago, members have made it a point to head out on their bikes or in cars right before Memorial Day weekend to join thousands of other RT members from across the nation.
Their purpose is to spread their mission in honor of the country’s POWs/MIAs from every combat era. They carry out this mission by converging in Washington D.C. Memorial Day weekend parading through the streets for a demonstration run.
This was the national organization’s 25th “Ride to the Wall.” It was 1987 when a group of Vietnam veterans gathered to sound their concerns about the POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War. From there, Rolling Thunder® was formed.
The first run to Washington D.C. in 1988 was met with nearly 2,500 motorcycles that Memorial Day weekend. Twenty-five years later, the run hosts 700,000-900,000 enthusiasts on their bikes.
For the local chapter, members said this year’s ride offered an even deeper appreciation of the cause because of their first-time companion, Vietnam veteran Randal Walker of Dresden.
“It was an awesome experience to take this trip and see it through Randal’s eyes. It gave our purpose a deeper meaning,” RT TN Chapter member Pat Laird said.
Walker is a United States Marine Corps veteran who served in the Vietnam War. He has spent most of his life in service, having worked for more than two decades with the Martin Police Department and recently taken over the reigns of the Dresden Police Department as its police chief.
Walker said he was going on the trip to visit old friends.
“This was the trip of a lifetime. I went there to look up an old friend who served with me in Vietnam. We got their one day and he was killed the next,” Walker shared.
Walker said in past experiences, when people assemble there is a lot of laughter and noise that can be heard. This trip to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, however, was more solemn for those who were in attendance.
Throughout Memorial Day weekend, it is common to see RT members at each of the historic landmarks throughout Washington D.C. At the Vietnam Wall, people can be seen searching for names, placing flowers near the monument and shading the names of those who died in service.
“This was the most solemn place I had been to. People were whispering and praying.
Everyone was there to pay their respects. As bad a shape as this country is in right now, it is good to know there is a place you can go where you can reflect on what you remember about those people,” Walker added.
He said the trip to the wall was included on his bucket list.
“I had an opportunity to live my life, whereas their lives were snuffed out, most of them when they were 18 or 19 years old,” Walker said.
On a national level, this year’s parade through Washington D.C. was lead by the parents of missing U.S. serviceman Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho.
Bergdahl, 26-year-old U.S. Army sergeant, was capture din Afghanistan in 2009 after he finished his guard shift at a combat outpost in southeastern Paktika province.
His father, Robert, told the massive crowd gathered in Washington that his family, state and country has not forgotten his son Bowe.
Rolling Thunder®’s mission is to continue to push Congressional legislation in honor of all POW/MIAs from all wars to ensure they are found and brought home.
The organization’s annual “Ride to the Wall” in Washington is one of a resounding, powerful message to leaders in Washington that will not stop until “all POW/MIAs are accounted for.”
Throughout the year, chapters around the nation continue their cause by educating the public, honoring those who serve and continuing to promote veterans affairs.
Even with so much going on throughout the year, the 13 members of RT TN Chapter 6 who took the time to participate in this year’s demonstration run formed a bond of fellowship.
“I was able to do this because of my wife Dawn and the people I went with. Going with that group of people was like being with family members. It was just an awesome experience,” Walker admitted.
“I’ll never forget it. I’ll think about this experience every day for the rest of my life,” he added.
To learn more about the local chapter, visit Rolling Thunder® TN-Chapter 6 online or find the group on Facebook.
People do not have to be veterans to join and they do not have to have a motorcycle to be a part of the non-profit organization.