Rolling Thunder 2017

May 30, 2017

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Rolling Thunder 2017

I was talking to someone about “the war,” not long ago. I call it “the war” because I’ve only ever been in the one.

And that someone advised me, “That was a long time ago. It’s time you got over that.” They were wise words, although a little easier said than done.

But I, personally, am almost there. It has been forever since I awakened from what I used to think of as “the dream:” The one from which I always woke up wondering if I was really alive or if waking up from that particular dream was what it was like to be dead. It has been many years since I threw myself on top of a pet at the sound of a passing jet and sternly commanded “Get down fool! It’s a rocket!” Of course all of those eccentric, little episodes were long ago. Of course. I am now over all of them. Of course, I am. Because if I wasn’t I could no longer legally own a gun. And. the older I get the more I aspire to legality.

I have evolved. We have all evolved – not nearly so much as the spinning world around us but pretty much; to the point that among the last of my grim attachments is a lingering sentimentality for a motorcycle run called Rolling Thunder. The annual run is a parade of motorcycles, mostly Harleys, from Arlington, Virginia to the National Mall. It has always been associated with a cross country pilgrimage called “The Run For the Wall,” which in its earliest days began at a truck stop in Ontario, California and now has multiple starting points.

Artie Muller

Rolling Thunder, which is a corporation as well as an event, celebrated its 30th anniversary this past weekend and its persistence is largely due to the efforts of a man named Artie Muller. Muller was a young buck sergeant in a large military unit that at the time was commonly described as the Flaky Fourth. That meant that back in the day Muller had the opportunity to enjoy many thrilling helicopter rides throughout the greater An Khe, Pleiku, and Kon Tum arboreal area. Maybe Muller has made Rolling Thunder his life’s work because even though the Central Highlands were long ago he never quite got over them. Or maybe the only way he could get over them was by throwing himself into Rolling Thunder.

The run began in 1987. Muller has been in charge since 1992 and he has been sufficiently wise to allow the meaning of Rolling Thunder to change with the times. Thirty years ago the run was a rude, deafening, angry show of force. It was a refusal by Vietnam veterans to be scorned, shamed or forgotten.

A continuing theme of the event has been to draw attention to unaccounted-for prisoners of war and servicemen listed as missing in action. A major function of Rolling Thunder remains the publicization of “POW-MIA issues: To educate the public that many American prisoners of war were left behind after all previous wars and to help correct the past and to protect future veterans from being left behind should they become prisoners of war or missing in action.”


In 1993, Muller and others who have dedicated their leisure or their lives to the run lobbied for the Missing Service Personnel Act which forbid the Department of Defense from simply declaring missing soldiers dead. Two years later, the group successfully sponsored a postage stamp that featured Newton Foust Heisley’s iconic image of a prisoner and a promise. The promise was, “You Are Not Forgotten.”

In recent years the noisy parade has become controversial and remote from its original meaning. Many residents near the nation’s capital have come to see the event as an annual traffic nightmare. Last year, an estimated 400,000 bikers rode in the parade. This year, rain held the numbers down to about a quarter of that.

The Vietnam War is hardly mentioned in connection with the parade anymore. Rolling Thunder is now both a “Ride For Freedom” and a “First Amendment Demonstration Run.”

Former President George W. Bush used his family’s connections to successfully avoid service in Vietnam and he was, apparently, at least decent enough to feel a little ashamed of that. During his administration, Muller and other members of Rolling Thunder were invited to the White House.

President Obama was too young to have served in Vietnam. He had no particular emotional connection to that war. Consequently, he only met once, briefly, with Muller during his administration.

Last year, Rolling Thunder gave candidate Donald Trump, a blatant draft dodger, a forum at which to speak and Trump appeared to be grateful. “Look at all these bikers,” Trump told the crowd. “Do we love the bikers? Yes. We love the bikers.”

Trump distanced himself from the parade and the accompanying observances this year. Instead he gave what has been almost universally received as a “moving” Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery

“They each had their own names, their own stories, their own beautiful dreams,” Trump said of those who died for the rest of us – or maybe they died for nothing at all.  “But they were all angels sent to us by God and they all share one title in common and that is the title of hero, real heroes…. Though they were here only a brief time before God called them home, their legacy will endure forever.”

Forever. For as long as we remember. For as long as the memories still sting. Until we all get over that.


18 Responses to “Rolling Thunder 2017”

  1. Don Says:

    A short poem one of my Brothers wrote about another of our brothers who served in country during the Vietnam war. Our brother ultimately died due to combat wounds and exposure to Agent Orange. I served in the Gulf but I will never forget the family waiting every day for that knock on our door or his name to appear on the news.

    “The day my brother left home he looked me in the eye. I tried to be brave and smile, but I started to cry. He took off his insignia and pressed it into my hand. Then boarded his plane for some far away land. I read all his letters when they infrequently came. Although it was never spoken I could feel his deep pain. When the war finally ended and he walked through the door he wasn’t the brother I knew before. I never asked what he did and he seldom ever said. But once during a storm I found him hiding under our bed.

    For God and Country some hero once said. You can glorified if you are not one of the dead. To this day I get angry when someone brags about the “Nam especially if they have not felt burning shrapnel or heard death in a bomb. As years passed the pain left his head but the demon called war ate his body instead. My brother is now gone but I can still hear him sing,
    War, huh, good God y’all
    What is it good for.”

  2. Cookie Says:

    I was too young, but being the youngest cousin in a big closenit family I say first hand it’s effects. From watching the nightly news trying to get a glimpse to know they were ok, to reading the name of the unfortunate in the weekly paper. All of my family came home although not all were whole. Some are gone, some are still battling there demons. Thank you Rebel and all veterans for your service.


  3. Shotgun Says:

    Screw you zero..

  4. bcnasty Says:

    @ russell1946, I will always remember .
    R.I.P. Nobody V.N.V. MC
    Mangy S.D.R.C.
    and my brother , the man that taught me to ride on panel 19E.

  5. swampy Says:

    Zero – I remember something about G. Allman shooting himself in the foot to avoid the draft. Rebel, thank you, and thanks for writing two great stories here around Memorial Day. I was too young for Vietnam by several years but I love my Nam Vet Brothers and friends; that number growing fewer. And of course, thank Y’all for showing us younger guys how to ride and party like it was our last day on earth!

  6. TX_Biker Says:

    We did what we had to do. Not so much for Honor and country but to keep our brothers and ourselves alive. History reports the reasons and outcomes of war, but to the men that fight them those reports are meaningless. We see the faces of those that fought and died beside us. We remember the horrors, how long the nights were, the deadly quiet before the battles, the agonizing aftermath and the stares when we came home. Some of us came home with visible scars, some with with much deeper scars that no one can see, some of us though in familiar setting have never felt at home.
    We all experienced it, now it is a new generations turn. Welcome home my brothers, welcome home.

  7. BeemerCM Says:

    Thanks Rebel
    What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I’ll never “get over it”, nor do I want to. I try to draw on whatever allowed me to come back to the “world” when things get weird. Surrounding myself with other Viet Nam vets has helped.
    I no longer go to The Wall on memorial Day. If and when I feel a need to spend some time there, I go when the circus is not in town.
    Respects, Beemer
    RVN ’71-’72
    23rd Inf Div (Americal)
    196th Lt Inf Bde

    @zero Take your disappointment back to Facebook where you obviously belong.

  8. BigUglyMotherFucker Says:

    The man who taught me how to ride has his name on that wall. Pfc Charles Ellis.. Class of “67. He was a good guy. Liked his beer, his girlfriend (my sister), and the wind in his face. Quick with a joke, always had a smile going and outrunning the cops was his favorite thing to do on a Friday night.
    I still miss ya Charlie, always will.

  9. Steel Says:

    Rebel, excellent piece. Thank you and welcome home.



  10. russell1946 Says:

    welcome home, Rebel…

    from a REMF who served at the airstrip in Cam Ranh Bay.

    Many years ago, I deliberately picked a rainy day to visit The Wall, and have never been back.

    Once was enough.

  11. Sandmann Says:

    Great writing. Thank you for this – and for sharing bits and pieces of your story.

    Respect to the deserving,

  12. Shyster Says:

    I too, at 52 years of age, am too young to have served in Vietnam. I was fortunate enough to visit The Wall and Arlington in March of this year with my now 14 year old son. He and I will never forget reading the endless names on the Wall and watching the changing of the guard at Arlington.

    Thank you Don for your service. And thanks to all Veterans here and those off this grid who were with you in your time of service, before and those who will serve tomorrow.


  13. Sick Rick Says:

    Zero–does anybody remember Scooter Herring? And how he got a 75 year sentence because of Gregg’s testimony given to save his own ass? And after having a few decades to consider how he jammed his former friend up, he wrote in his recent memoir, “what was I supposed to do?”

  14. R&R Says:

    Rolling Thunder was always on my bucket list. Managed to do it in 2015 and it was a rewarding ride. I, as Rebel, evolved. It took me 4 years of prozac and psychiatric care, but I got through it. I’m proud that we of the Vietnam generation fought the bureaucratic mess that denied veterans who served benefits that we all earned. We made possible Vet Centers, where you can get help, recognition of agent orange residual damage, and many other issues. We fought the system tooth and nail and prevailed. Makes me proud. It was a shitty war. We who lived through it have taken a long time to get “normal”.

  15. Paladin Says:

    Dear Rebel,

    To this day, I still cringe a little at the sound of the Fourth of July fireworks mortars.

    Long May You Ride,


  16. zero Says:

    Does anybody remember Greg Allman?

    I was eagerly awaiting your words about the Allman Brothers Band. They did have two members die on motorcycles. Maybe next time.

  17. Boozefighter Ahab Says:

    Thank you, Rebel, for everything. You nailed it.

  18. Dutchboy Says:

    As always, a well written article, thank you Rebel. Also, thank you for your service & welcome home. I would have a hard time not slapping the stupid off someone’s face if they told me to “just get over it”.

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