“The guy in the cage over there kind of put a knot in my stomach,” said Vietnam veteran Ron Lambert.
On a grassy hill overlooking the north parking lot at the Pentagon, Lambert sat with his wife of 40 years, Eileen. In the lot below, teeming with chrome and leather, was the largest portion of an estimated 400,000 motorcyclists who would participate in the 2012 Rolling Thunder “Ride for Freedom” around the National Mall in Washington, D.C., May 27, as part of Memorial Day weekend events in the nation’s capital.
The event, now in its 25th year, is meant to draw attention to service members who went missing in action and are still missing, or who were captured as prisoners of war and who have yet to be returned home.
Off on one side of the parking lot was a trailer with a bamboo cage sitting on top. Inside the cage was an elderly, bearded, shaggy-haired man in tattered clothing. He grasped the cage walls, looked out, and said nothing; but the signs on the trailer said it for him: “Vietnam, Korea, WWII.” He represented POWs from those wars, the focus of the Rolling Thunder rally.
“It’s to honor all the veterans that lost their lives, and for the ones that are not back yet,” Lambert said. “Look at it. You can’t beat this.”
Lambert and his wife, whom he met in high school, rode to Rolling Thunder from upstate New York. Lambert had enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968, when he was 17 years old. He served in Vietnam with the 1/9 3rd Marine Division as an infantryman.
“I’d graduated from high school and had to do something,” he said. “There was nothing to do, once I graduated. I was a foster child, so when I graduated high school I had nowhere to live, so I went in the service.”
This year, the United States also recognizes the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War. And times have changed, Lambert said, for service members returning home after a conflict.
“It’s a major difference,” he said. “We landed in California and we took our uniforms off. It was a different time. They were all looking down on us. Now you’re proud to have it on. The less people that knew (about our service), the better.”
Roy Powell said he’s glad to see the attitudes of Americans have changed from the way they were when he got back from Vietnam, to the way they honor Soldiers today.
“I’m very happy to see that,” he said. “Just because of the way we were treated when we came home. A lot of guys I know had bad experiences when they came home; people would sneer at them. I’ve heard of people being spit on and called names. It’s nice they treat the veterans a lot better today than when I came home.”
Powell, of Forsyth, Mo., left the Army as a sergeant in 1970, after enlisting in 1964. He served in Vietnam as a military policeman. He’d been medically evacuated out of Vietnam after serving in places like Saigon, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, and Can Tho.
“They moved me around a little bit,” he said. “We did convoy escort and river patrol and things like that. We used to assemble convoys at the Saigon ports; the ships would come in and unload their cargo and put it on trucks. And we’d escort the convoys to Long Binh and Bien Hoa. We’d have a jeep in front with a machine gun, and then a jeep in back with a machine gun. Unless it was a real long convoy (and) we’d have a jeep in the middle somewhere.”
This was his first time at Rolling Thunder, Powell said.
“This is the 25th anniversary of Rolling Thunder and the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do this. So I finally decided I’m going to do it.”
He rode because he wanted to bring attention to the needs of service members who have gone MIA or who were taken as POWs.
“The whole crux of the thing is we’re protesting the way the government is handling the POW/MIA issue,” Powell said. “We don’t think they are doing enough. They never really made the effort. We feel there were POWs left behind in Vietnam.”
Powell admitted it’s doubtful there are POWs alive today, however. He’s 68 himself, and imagines anybody who had been left behind would since have died. “They aren’t going to live that long,” he said.
There are still MIAs in Vietnam and the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command does send workers there to find and reclaim the remains of those service members.
Participants in Rolling Thunder aren’t just veterans of Vietnam. They also include veterans of operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom, as well as supporters of veterans. Also, the riders support MIA from current wars, including Operation Enduring Freedom.
Jerry “Stogie” Mongrain, who served in Vietnam as a soldier and who retired from the Army after more than 22 years, pulled from the inside pocket of his leather riding vest a sticker bearing the words “Riding for Bowe.”
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is an American soldier who was captured in June 2009 in Afghanistan, and who is currently being held by the Taliban.
“This is a protest ride, a reminder of we still have a lot of POW and MIA still out there, from all wars,” said Mongrain. “(Bergdahl) is a POW in the Middle East now. But they need to account for all, get the POWs back, and account for the MIAs.”