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  400,000 BIKERS REFUSE TO FORGET THOSE LEFT BEHIND.  
   
   
  For the last 16 years, Rolling Thunder has rumbled through Washington D.C. over Memorial Day weekend. The group's mission is to educate the public about POW/MIA issues. What started with fewer than 2,600 motorcycles is now group effort of over 400,000 bikes  
  belonging to veterans, their families and advocates. The unmistakable growl of so many Harley-Davidsons consistently sends a message to Congress that POWs/MIAs are not to be forgotten. Rolling Thunder has effectively influenced legislation in the past that is directly related to improving veterans' benefits and helping those left behind and still not accounted for, as well as their families, including the Bring Them Home Alive Act of 2000 and the Missing Service Personnel Act of 1997.

At this time a year ago, my father, Gregory Jezarian, Sr., was grappling with the decision whether he should make the trip

 
   
 

down to Washington to participate in the ride. Ultimately, he opted not to go; this year, he was remembered as someone whose life was prematurely taken as a result of his Vietnam War-related injuries. As weak as he was last year, suffering the effects of his cancer (which was of an "unknown" primary source), he knew the trip would kill him. On several occasions in the past, he had spent hours starting deep in the night at the Vietnam Memorial when no one else was there, and he had come home exhausted. He knew that if he spent the day with over 400,000 supporters and people who had been affected by the Vietnam War in one way or another, being cheered on, hugged and recognized for what he had given all those years ago … the emotion of the day would drain the last of his strength.

So this year, in his honor … my brother and I rode.

****

Event organizers, led by veteran Artie Muller, were escorted to the White House, where President Bush greeted them with a thumbs-up

 
     

and gave them a tour of the Oval Office. But that was just the end of the ride.

Days prior, groups from all over the country met up and rode in together. The New York chapters and participants met at the Molly Pitcher rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike at 8 a.m. the Friday before Memorial Day. The actual day of the motorcycle

 
 

parade began early in the morning; bikers gathered at select meeting grounds outside D.C., whether it was a McDonald's in Upper Marlboro, Md., or a friend's house in the suburbs. These small groups then rode to bigger meeting points, including the Fort Washington, Md., Harley-Davidson dealership that opened at 6 a.m. to host the incoming riders, two of whom were my brother and me. An enormous American flag, dancing in the wind, hung from a local Fire Department's ladder truck high above the road. For a moment, all was quiet as the PA announced the playing of the National Anthem. Though the vendors, spectators and the bikers and their machines were all quiet, an emotional urgency lay thick with every breath.

The police escorts, fully equipped on their police signature Harley-Davidson Road Kings, fired up their engines; the roar signaled the

 
 

beginning of the march. Two by two, the motorcycles poured from the parking lot, cheered-on the entire length of roadway before the highway entrance. The highways were cordoned off en route to the North Pentagon parking lot. Policeman halted cars at exit ramps along the way, and some drivers got out to stand on the side of the road and salute.

 

     
 

Mike Baker, a rider in this year's Rolling Thunder and the son of Vietnam POW and former Air Force fighter pilot Elmo "Mo" Baker, at first downplayed the significance of the motorcycles; to him, what mattered was the gathering, not the transportation. I rode most of the parade route alongside Baker, and he hunted me down after we had parked our bikes, (ironically enough, in front of the EPA building) to express a change of mind.

"I thought about it some more," he said, "and nothing represents freedom more than riding a bike. That's what they fought for."

Mike's father was a participant in a Monday morning ceremony for Alan Brudno, a POW with whom Elmo Baker had been in a

 
      Vietnamese prison camp for over three years. "You know, I've never had a frog in my throat in my entire life except for that day when my father came through that door after he had been released," Mike Baker said. "If you want to know what a frog in your throat feels like, that was it." Baker went on to describe in detail the first image he had of his father, a figure framed in a dark doorway, pausing a second before he stepped  
 

through to see his family for the first time in seven years.

"He was shot down and taken prisoner when I was seven years old," Baker said. "I didn't see him again until I was 14."

Baker's father was a Lieutenant Colonel who had successfully prevented Brudno from committing suicide while they were prisoners. But five months after his release in 1973, Brudno was found dead. He had survived seven and a half years as a POW, but the psychological damage was so excruciating that Brudno couldn't take it. Baker's father was one of many former POWs to lead the ultimately successful fight to have Brudno's name engraved on the Wall as an honor to his memory.

With the long wait in the North Pentagon, you had plenty of time to get lost in your thoughts. Amidst the vendors and various organizations' information booths, free water and coffee were handed to people of all race, age and origin. The lines to the port-a-potties were at least 30 people deep, and there was barely enough room to walk through the masses of people in the most highly trafficked areas. There was peace and quiet to be found however; many lay in the grass and the shade of trees, away from the sights and sounds.

A Vietnam Veteran who would only give his name as Bill, who resides in the D.C. area, has attended the event every year since 1997. He was sitting peacefully by himself, staring off. When asked to describe what Rolling Thunder meant to him, he just said, "brotherhood."

The ride began at noon and Muller, Rolling Thunder's president, led the pack out of the parking lots. With the immense volume of motorcycles this year, it took three-plus hours for the volunteers to orchestrate the deployment of the bikes out and on their way. Once moving, the route took riders through the downtown Washington area, past the most noted monuments and landmarks. As we crossed the bridge from Virginia into DC, you saw the biggest crowds of the day along the sides of the road, standing behind police barriers, cheering. Many riders blamed the tears they fought back on the wind. One veteran stood on the side of the road holding two signs:

CHARLIE DON'T SWIM.

WELCOME HOME.

The majority of the route was ridden in first-gear. But as the bikes took a parade lap and turned onto the main drag that passed the Vietnam Wall, Rolling Thunder earned its name.

The throttles were twisted to the stops, and everyone stayed in the low gear to make as much noise as possible. The decibels screamed on their behalf as the thunderous sound bounced off the buildings and carried through the afternoon sky.

With President Bush somewhere in the distance, the thousands of cycles blared, commanding the world to, in the words of one sign, NEVER FORGET.

 

Nick Jezarian is an editor at Yankee Pot Roast.