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Wisconsin Veterans Take Annual Trip to Washington D.C.

On the road with Rolling Thunder

Jun. 15, 2017
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Photo Credit: Fort Bragg (Flickr CC)

The growl of motorcycle engines is as much a part of Milwaukee’s summer sounds as humming mosquitoes, vendors shouting orders inside food trucks and the laughter of children at outdoor pools.

Rolling Thunder Chapter 2 will host a dedication ceremony on National POW/MIA Recognition Day, Sept. 22, at Simmons Field in Kenosha (home of the Kenosha Kingfishers). They will install a permanent, empty stadium seat with the POW/MIA embroidered in the seat back. It represents “all the guys who we hope will eventually come back home,” Thompson says. The seat was requested by a local veteran. Prior to the chair’s instillation, Chapter 2 members held a number of fundraisers at the field (such as a brat cook-out).

The chair at Simmons Field will be the second honor chair installed in Wisconsin. The first chair, which Chapter 2 also donated, sits at the Milwaukee Harley-Davidson dealership on Silver Spring Road. For more information about Rolling Thunder, contact Tim Thompson at 414-405-5757, or check the group’s website for information about monthly meetings.

On May 25, nearly 100 motorcycles rumbled for a very special reason. Riders gathered early in the morning at the Harley-Davidson Museum. After downing coffee and doughnuts, and collecting their t-shirts, they eventually took to the road. It was the Wisconsin chapters’ 25th anniversary ride from Milwaukee to Washington, DC.

Called “Run to the Wall,” the ride is organized by Rolling Thunder, a non-profit group that honors POWs, MIAs and veterans in general.

Getting from Milwaukee to Washington DC means a grueling, 900-mile ride through seven states. It takes two days for the group to reach its destination: a Motel 6 in Camp Springs, MD. Each year, the group reserves the entire motel for several days.

Once the group settles in for the night, they rise bright and early to begin a planned series of events. Camp Springs is about a 20-minute ride to the Pentagon parking lot, where Rolling Thunder riders from across the country line up for the Sunday parade.

This year’s ride from Wisconsin included Rolling Thunder members from around the state, including Colgate, Green Bay, Hales Corners, Hartford, Keshena, Kenosha, Madison, Merton, Milwaukee, Oak Creek, Slinger and Waukesha. Most of the riders are Vietnam veterans, now in their late 60s to mid-70s. “All of our state’s chapters were represented in this year’s ride,” said Tim Thompson, Chapter 2 co-founder and board chairman.


Rolling Thunder Represents Veterans’ Rights, but Not All Members are Veterans

The Wisconsin riders represent all walks of life, from retired lawyers to corporate executives, mechanics, electricians, landscapers and long-haul truckers. Many bike owners are retired now, but others take vacation days from work to “visit their brothers” whose names are etched on the Vietnam Veteran Memorial’s black granite wall. And there are quite a few women on board, too. Some are passengers, while others ride their own bikes.

Although Rolling Thunder is frequently mistaken for being a motorcycle club, it is a national organization that supports the return of POWs and MIAs from foreign wars. The name “rolling thunder” comes from the sound of an Apache helicopter attack during the Vietnam War.

Interestingly, it is not necessary to be a veteran or to own a motorcycle to belong to Rolling Thunder. For instance, Thompson, 62, is not a veteran. His older brother served in Vietnam in 1967-68. During that time, he was exposed to the toxic chemical Agent Orange. After the war, he suffered from more than one form of cancer and died at age 53. “When I join these guys for our activities, I do it as a tribute to my brother,” Thompson said.


“Wall” Ride Requires Reliable, Powerful Motorcycles

Although Harley-Davidson does not sponsor the ride, their products are well represented in this group. Powerful engines and reliability are needed for what Chapter 2 President Willie Lee calls a “tough ride. We ride fast, and we ride tight,” he announces to the riders prior to takeoff. (“Riding tight” means that the bikes are slightly staggered on the freeways, close enough together so that no cars or trucks are tempted to move into their lane.)

Although the group has fundraisers and projects throughout the year, the “Run to the Wall” ride is by far the chapter’s most visible event. According to Thompson, it takes nine months of planning to ensure that Wisconsin riders arrive safely at their destination each year. This year, as in the past, a police escort led the way to the state line.

Along the route, more experienced members are assigned to block highway traffic when the bikes need to stop for more gas or a meal.

Still, there is always the unexpected hiccup. With so many bikes on the road, it’s typical for a few to become disabled along the way. A couple of chase cars (hauling flatbed trailers) accompany the group. Disabled bikes are either given minor repairs at the time or tossed onto the trailers for a more thorough assessment in Camp Springs. It is not unusual for a few bikes to end up at the local Harley-Davidson dealer service department before they can roar into action again.


An Exclusive View of Artifacts Left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

One of the 2017 trip’s highlights was a short ride to the Museum Resource Center (MRCE –called “mercy”). This large, unobtrusive government building houses more than 400,000 artifacts left at the Vietnam Veterans Wall (commonly called, the “Wall.) The building isn’t open to the public, but the National Park Services representatives open it regularly for the Wisconsin group.

That’s because two Rolling Thunder veterans – Bob “Hoggie” Thompson of Colgate, Wis., and Kenneth Pezewski of Slinger, Wis. – hatched a plan in the mid-1990’s to create the largest memento ever left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They thought it would be cool to make a bike completely of parts donated by motorcycle owners who knew of the project – and leave it at the memorial. The project took almost a year to complete.

There’s a long story about how National Park Rangers almost refused to let the motorcycle stay at the Wall after it was parked there. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the bike had its moment in the sun, gleaming like a shiny chrome coin in front of the reflective black wall.

After a time, it was shipped to MRCE and crated for posterity (until the Wisconsin riders return for a visit). In front of the motorcycle, a plaque shaped like the state’s outline is inscribed with what is called the “Wisconsin 37.” That stands for the 37 Wisconsin soldiers who were still listed as POWs or MIAs in 1995. Today, that number has dropped to 25. (Among the tasks taken on by Rolling Thunder riders is to give a motorcycle escort to MIA remains that are recovered overseas and returned via Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Field.)


A Motorcycle Like No Other

Even in the sterile storage facility, the chopper-style motorcycle is impressive. Some parts are chilling, though. On the gas tank, an artist painted a “nightmare” scene in which “the wall” is shown untended and overgrown, with a silhouetted veteran crouching and crying in front of it. On the bike’s front end, some 37 dog tags are dangling on one side. In the back, the bike’s (real) license plate reads, “hero.”

So here rests the motorcycle, protected for posterity along with all the other things left at the wall. These range from stuffed teddy bears to playing cards, 1960s-era combat boots, and many, many cards, signs and letters. Each item carries its own hidden meaning to those who left the items at the Wall, comforted by the fact that they will be treated with care when the park rangers take them to MRCE.

Memorial Day weekend always means an overflow of items brought and left at the wall, and this year was no exception. One of the most memorable items was a small bottle of Jack Daniels, empty except for the cremains of what probably was a Vietnam War veteran.

Tim Thompson brought something to leave behind this year, too. It was a unique, personal item given to him by the Milwaukee family of a Vietnam vet who committed suicide recently. He was sad about the man’s death, but grateful that he could bring a part of this soldier to join his “brothers” at the wall. “It’s a fitting tribute, and (even if everyone who sees it) doesn’t realize its significance, at least I know that it will be kept along with all the other mementoes. That’s important.”

It’s important, too, to remember that the “Run to the Wall” is part of a healing process for the veterans who participate each year. Many of those riding from Wisconsin have repeated the ride five times, 10 times, or 15 times. They look forward to the camaraderie and making time of remembrance. Most of all, they are paying tribute to family members and buddies who are gone now, but whose names remained carved for posterity in the black granite wall. Even their mere presence is enough to demonstrate that these soldiers’ sacrifice will not be forgotten.


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