It is an image of focus, determination and strength. Here stands Artie Muller, his gaze steady, his denim vest bearing an American flag and a POW emblem. This is a photo from another age, from the early days of Rolling Thunder. The world has changed since then — but not Artie Muller, an Army vet who co-founded the patriotic group over three decades ago to draw attention to the cause of prisoners of war and those who never made it home. He’s still got the iron will to honor the original mission, and inspire others to do the same.
“Let us never give up and let our government forget about this issue. Our past POWs and those missing in action, and our future troops need our support should they be captured. American troops will always face the enemy in foreign wars for the freedom of others,” said Mr. Mueller.
It is a very personal calling, and one that emerged following a conversation with fellow vet Ray Manzo one autumn afternoon in 1987. Both men were troubled by reported sightings of Americans still held as prisoners overseas. The pair called for a demonstration in the nation’s capital that could not be ignored. They were, Mr. Mueller recalled, “ordinary men who understood that they had a right to have their voices heard.”
That moment led to the creation of Rolling Thunder, named for the fierce bombing campaigns over North Vietnam, and of course, the thunder of the machines.
There was no social media, no internet. Close to 3,000 motorcyclists showed up for that first “Ride for Freedom,” with little notice but ready to roll.
The event now draws 750,000 riders from every state in the union and a dozen foreign nations, each with the same calling to “never forget” the absent or the fallen. They ride together from Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in a dedicated biker battalion so vast that it takes five hours to assemble them into formation. American flags are everywhere and the cause paramount.
“What is our government doing to recover remains from crash sites and battlefields? When is someone going to take action and put the live POW/MIA issue out front at a meeting with all foreign countries involved in past wars? We must never give up and let our government forget about the issue,” Mr. Mueller observed.
His message is mighty — and influential. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, along with President Trump have all met personally with Mr. Mueller and his closest Rolling Thunder officers. Members of Congress, military brass and cabinet members have all made the ride, along with such high-profile folk as Sarah Palin, Nancy Sinatra and actor Robert Patrick. C-SPAN covers the event, as does the national press.
The experience for both riders and public can be profound. The event has won praise for its patriotism, organization and the sheer scope of it.
“The camaraderie of the bikers, their generosity of spirit, and the rolling thunder of their engines was unique and awe-inspiring,” one witness advised in an online review at TripAdvisor.
“Truly humbling, and what a much needed show of patriotism for the men and women who put their lives on the line to protect us. God bless our troops and those who organize this,” another wrote.
Rolling Thunder, the organization, is run entirely by volunteers in 90 chartered chapters across the nation. Anyone can join; a motorcycle is not required. The civic-minded organization also stages local and regional rallies to raise money through a separate charitable division for disabled and homeless vets, rehabilitation centers, military families in need and senior citizens.
The cause itself has inspired a well-received and beautifully illustrated children’s book, “Rolling Thunder,” by award-winning author Kate Messner. There’s a new “Rolling Thunder” anthem as well. It is a doozy, written and sung with gusto by Rockie Lynne, himself a chapter vice president from North Carolina who will perform the song on Sunday. Mr. Lynne’s lyrics offer an apt summary:
“You can feel them coming from all across the nation; chrome on steel, hell on wheels, to say what needs sayin’
They come from every walk of life, they’ve come to right a wrong; boots and chains, leather and lace, a million motors strong
Like pilgrims dressed in leather, the faithful get together; it’s a tattoo rendezvous, Woodstock with an attitude
So climb on, fire it up, roll back the throttle and let out the clutch; ride to live, live to ride — thunder, thunder — rolling thunder, roll on.”
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