Congress

Rolling Thunder gets new life, new focus, new name

Advocacy group AMVETS says it will also address veterans suicide as well as POW/MIA awareness to 33rd annual Memorial Day ride

A motorcyclist rides in the 32nd Rolling Thunder in Washington in May. Previous organizers said in December that the 2019 ride would be the last. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The annual military veterans motorcycle run from the Pentagon parking lot to the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall will continue next Memorial Day weekend under the leadership of a different veterans organization.

Military veterans advocacy group American Veterans (AMVETS) has taken the torch of organizing the motorcycle rally after Rolling Thunder, a group that honors prisoners of war and missing in action service members, decided last year that it would no longer sponsor the event after 32 years.

AMVETS is sponsoring a three-day event next to the Lincoln Memorial, where speakers and entertainers will honor POWs and MIA service members and advocate for more resources to help mitigate the high suicide rates among surviving veterans.

The event will culminate with the motorcycle rally, which will be officially re-branded the “Rolling to Remember” demonstration run.

“This will not be a party. It is a serious demonstration to bring awareness and accountability for POWs and MIAs left behind and suicide prevention,” AMVETS National Executive Director Joe Chenelly said.

“Millions of motorcycle-riding patriots ... have spent their Memorial Day weekends for the past three-plus decades in our nation’s capital because they want to make a real difference,” he said. “This event will ensure those who take part are making a difference.”

Under Rolling Thunder’s leadership, an estimated 500,000 motorcyclists participated in the 2018 run.

But the annual rally, originally called the “Rolling Thunder Run to the Wall” and later renamed the “First Amendment Demonstration Run,” cost Rolling Thunder roughly $200,000 each year for security, toilets, and use of the Pentagon parking lot.

“The amount of money that we put on for the one demonstration ride, we could probably ... help a lot more veterans with it,” Doc Stewart, Rolling Thunder’s regional liaison for New England, told NPR last year.

At a news conference Friday, AMVETS National Commander Jan Brown criticized the dwindling number of federal lawmakers displaying the POW-MIA flag outside their congressional offices.

“The number of offices displaying the POW-MIA flag has dropped from nearly all to just about half over the past 10 years. That's unacceptable,” Brown said. “Perhaps they didn’t realize how meaningful and purposeful it is to display that flag. I hope that by the time ‘Rolling To Remember’ is upon us, 100 percent of the offices will have it up properly.”

AMVETS will be publishing a list by Veterans Day of which lawmakers are displaying the flag outside their offices and which are not, the group said.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.