Rolling to Remember returns to Pentagon to raise awareness about POWs
WASHINGTON - Thousands of Harley Davidson motorcycles revved up outside the Department of Defense's headquarters. Excited children waved American flags at passing riders while the more timid among them plugged their ears to muffle the roar of engines. Cigar smoke mingled with the sounds of Bon Jovi and Warrant.
Rolling to Remember, the annual Memorial Day weekend motorcycle ride that calls attention to those who serve in the armed forces, has not launched from the Pentagon in recent pandemic years. But on Sunday, the choppers returned, making their annual circle of the Mall to raise awareness about American soldiers missing in action and a mental health crisis among veterans.
"This is who we are," said Myke "New York" Shelby, 79, who rode five days from San Diego for the event. "We're going to give each other the support we never got."
For the past few years, the future of this annual pilgrimage had been uncertain. An organizer of the ride that started out as "Rolling Thunder" said it would shut down after the 2019 event, citing fatigue.
Though the ride found a new sponsor and a new name, it was largely derailed in 2020 by the coronavirus. Then came two years of permitting issues as organizers adjusted to the post-pandemic world, in which public gatherings involving tens of thousands of riders could be canceled at the last minute. The 2021 and 2022 rides rolled on, but the starting line was moved to RFK Stadium in the District.
Joseph Chenelly, the executive director of Amvets, a veterans-service organization created by Congress in 1944 that sponsors the ride, said the organization was grateful that D.C. hosted the bikers for the past two years. However, participants wanted to return to the Pentagon, which would be the site of a "family reunion," he said.
"This is the brain of the U.S. military," he said. "We're calling on the U.S. military to continue keeping its promise to not leave anyone behind."
Some at Rolling to Remember questioned whether the military had kept its promise.
Shelby said he served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1966. When he returned, he and fellow veterans were treated with contempt - disrespected and spat on as Walter Cronkite called the war a "stalemate," he said.
Things changed when the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated in 1982, Shelby said. At the Wall, he was "welcomed home." Energized by the experience, he's made the trek to D.C. by motorcycle every year for decades.
"There's a certain symbolism with a motorcycle," according to Shelby. "It's a pilgrimage for me to allow myself to get angry, to vent and to cry."
Jonathan Hatch, 38, who retired from the U.S. Army in 2019 after almost 10 years of service, works as a mechanic in Maryland - the same job he had in the military.
Life since he left the service, where his leg was injured in an accident involving a Humvee, has been difficult, Hatch said. He's plagued by health problems, including fibromyalgia, and uses a cane. He said he needs to take extra long breaks at work and lost a job as a result. He's had trouble finding a loan to buy a home and, now that he has one, is having trouble holding on to it.
Though he sports a Buffalo Soldier tattoo that honors the post-Civil War, all-Black regiments of the Army, he's not sure that his government is honoring Black soldiers like him.
"You can barely scrimp by as a veteran in Maryland," he said. "No veteran should be going through the crap I'm going through in my home state."
According to Amvets, more than 80,000 soldiers remain unaccounted for after the end of World War II, and more than 20 U.S. veterans die by suicide each day.
John Reando, national president of Amvets, who came to the rally from Missouri, said a member of his local chapter of the organization took his own life this week. The mental health battles of soldiers returning from war and trying to resume a normal life are predictable, he said.
"The bills get behind," he said. "They can't handle that level of stress. The demons - that's what gets them."
Reando said he served in the Army National Guard from 1984 to 1990 - a time where "nothing was going on," he said. He joined Amvets in 2007 to give back, including with a program that provides free wood to veterans who are struggling with their heating bills.
"These guys put their life on the line and I didn't," he said. "It's survivor's guilt. That's why I'm here every day."
The riders also honored those who never returned.
Sarah Taylor, president of the American Gold Star Mothers, a nonprofit for mothers who have lost children serving the armed forces, came to the ride from Kentucky. Her son, David W. Taylor, was killed in 2012 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
She just wants people to remember him, especially on Memorial Day. A soldier dies twice, Taylor said - the day they pass and the day their name is no longer spoken.
"We don't mind if people have barbecues," she said. "We want and expect people to take a moment to remember those who have given up everything."
The ride was the capstone of other Memorial Day events this weekend, including a concert later Sunday, and it precedes a parade on the Mall sponsored by Boeing on Monday.
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