As the name suggests, Rolling Thunder describes the sound of thousands of motorcycles revving up and roaring down a street. But the thunder carries other meanings as well — the vibrations that reverberate inside the body as the bikers buzz by, and the storm of emotions bikers weather as they reach Washington and remember their military buddies who died.
"The ride was nice. The thrill was better. The emotions were like those I haven't had since I came back," said Falls Church resident and Vietnam veteran Bill Devaughn of the annual motorcycle ride honoring Vietnam veterans, prisoners of war and those missing in action.
Bob De Haven, owner of Patriot Harley-Davidson Fairfax and organizer of Ride of the Patriots, the Fairfax leg for Rolling Thunder, agreed.
"It's probably one of the most emotional things I've ever done," De Haven said. "A lot of them have tears in their eyes. It's time for them to remember their buddies from all wars."
Thousands of motorcyclists from around the region and the nation gathered in Fairfax on Sunday to participate in the fifth annual Ride of the Patriots. The bikers came from all walks of life and livelihoods: men and women, young and old, some veterans, all motorcycle enthusiasts. They rode to remember those who have fallen. Their bikes rumbled to commemorate Memorial Day.
After Fairfax's Ride of the Patriots, the bikers joined with thousands more at the Pentagon, to take part in Rolling Thunder's 16th annual "Ride for Freedom." The ride, a procession of more than 300,000 motorcycles, cars and vintage military vehicles, started at the Pentagon and ended at the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial, with a stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
"When you hear all the motorcycles and see all the people in front of you ... it gets to be an inspirational kind of feeling," said Oakton resident Larry Larson, a retired marketing executive, who helped organize the Patriot Ride.
Before leaving Fairfax, the bikers received a send-off through the Patriot Ride's opening ceremony. The George Mason University ROTC did the presentation of colors, the Fairfax chapter of the American Legion led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem, and the Fairfax High School Band performed "God Bless America."
Several Fairfax City Council members, Fairfax mayor Rob Lederer and U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11th) were honored guests, and Del. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-37th) presented De Haven with a state resolution honoring Ride of the Patriots.
Keynote speaker and U.S. Army Col. Tom Maffey urged the crowd to observe Memorial Day and remember those lost.
"We honor those brave warriors by not forgetting them," said Maffey, pointing out that the U.S. Army has 365,000 soldiers in 178 different countries. "We honor them by doing everything we can to protect freedom for future generations."
NEW PARTICIPANTS in the Rolling Thunder ride anticipated the emotional charge of the event.
For Joyce Robinson of Mansfield, Ohio, the ride honored her husband, a Vietnam veteran, and veterans from her hometown.
"It's something we always wanted to do," said Robinson. "I know it's going to be extremely emotional. I'm looking forward to the volume of bikes ... and I guess to see the reactions of all those guys."
For Ernie Castro, owner of Mama's Italian Restaurant, which provided breakfast to the bikers, he expected an emotional charge to witnessing the ride.
"I get a chill going down my spine when I see all those bikers going by," said Castro, who woke up at 3 a.m. to prepare 60 pounds of sausage, 80 pounds of bacon, 80 pounds of home fries and hundreds of eggs to feed 200 bikers.
For Springfield resident Karl Zimmerman, the ride honors his father, who served in the military during Vietnam.
It was amazing how many people show up," Zimmerman said,. "It was seeing all the people on the side of the road cheering us on."