“The first time I went, my daughter brought me. And my son-in-law was there, and his friend. That day we had clouds, low clouds like fog. And when I saw those statues — I’d seen it in real life. My knees started to go.”
Frank Harper, a Korean War veteran who served in the Air Force, was talking about the statues at the Korean War Memorial, in Washington, D.C.
“They both grabbed me. They said ‘Sorry dad. Good job. Your job is done.’ That was the first time I got thanked,” Harper said.
Harper, his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, were among the tens of thousands of motorcyclists who lined up their bikes in the vast parking lots surrounding the Pentagon, this morning, as part of the Memorial Day weekend Rolling Thunder XXVII motorcycle rally and protest. The event is meant to bring attention to prisoners of war and service members who have gone missing in action.
In January 1951, Harper dropped out of high school to join the Air Force and participate in the Korean War. In the Air Force, he flew aboard the C-47 Skytrain, also called a “Gooney Bird,” where he was responsible for reconnaissance photography.
For many, the ride around the National Mall will close with a visit to the Vietnam Wall. And while Harper said he rides for veterans from all wars — he did serve in Korea. And it’s his memory of that conflict that has pushed him to participate each year in the rally.
“I lost buddies. I had one fellow that was cut right in half by an ack-ack shell,” Harper said. “The shell came through the plane, it didn’t blow, it went through him and went out the other side. We were all harnessed up so we could work on either side of the aircraft. It kept you from banging up against the aircraft. And he was right beside me. And the co-pilot came back and said he was standing there saying ‘come on Kyle … wake up Kyle.’ And he had ahold of his shoulder and was shaking him. And the lower part of his body was sliding toward the back of the aircraft.”
Harper said the young man, a friend of his, had just gotten news that his wife had given birth to their first child. “He was all happy about that,” Harper said.
Since returning from Korea, Harper said he’s seen attitudes about veterans change significantly.
“Now they seem to be treating veterans that are coming back a lot better than they did me,” he said. “When we came back they treated us like they did the Vietnam veterans. Baby killers. Butchers. All that.”
Today, he said, people sometimes pay for his dinner in a restaurant. And once, he said, when delivering a package at Boston University, he had the opportunity to ride in an elevator with three Korean students who expressed interest in the Korean War veteran hat he was wearing.
“They said ‘when were you there?’ And I said ‘1951-1953.’ And they said’ thank you for giving us freedom,'” he said.
Keith Sellers is a Vietnam veteran who served as a tail gunner in the U.S. Navy with the “Navy Sea Wolves.”
“We worked real close with the SEALs, to insert the SEALs in country,” he said. “And we supported riverboats.”
Sellers has made the ride to Washington, D.C., yearly since 2001, from his home in Wilmington, N.C. He rides with the motorcycle club “Nam Knights,” and said his wife has come with him once to the nation’s capital – but ultimately, “it’s a brother thing,” he said.
“The main reason I am here is to support those who gave it all, and those wounded warriors,” he said. “The very main reason is that wall means a whole lot to me. It’s a sacred place.”
“I had several friends who died in Vietnam,” he said. “I had a lady who asked me one time – the first time I went to the wall I was really having a hard time. Did I know anybody on the wall? I said all of them. That’s just the way I feel. They are all brothers.”
Many of the Rolling Thunder participants will end up at the Vietnam Wall, but Sellers said he’s only been able to approach the memorial once – the impact is too hard on him.
“I’ll go to the wall, but stand around the perimeter of it. It’s just really hard,” he said. “It’s just hard for me to do.”
Marine Corps veterans Alex and Omar Teran are both riding this year in the rally. Omar, Alex’s father, now works as a civilian with Headquarters, Department of the Marine Corps, in the Pentagon. He said his wife, not at the ride with the father and son team, retired from the Navy. Alex, just 23 years old, joined up with the Army Reserve after his time in the Marine Corps.
“We have been around the military all our lives,” Omar said. “The military has been pretty much everything I have known as an adult. This is a great way to maintain that connection.”
Alex, who served in the Marines from 2009-2013, did a tour in Afghanistan. He said he joined up “because my dad was a Marine.”
Omar said he bought his first motorcycle around the time his son joined the Marine Corps. They decided to start riding in 2010.
Today, he said, they ride to remember their fellow Marines, and all service members, who died in service to their country – including some friends of Alex, who were killed in Afghanistan.
“When you join the service, it’s because you believe in the mission,” Omar said. “Unfortunately, people sacrifice their lives or are injured. That’s part of the job. You want to commemorate them for what they have done.”
Buddy Sours draws a crowd at the Rolling Thunder rally. Actually, it’s his dog, a Chihuahua named Isaiah that draws the crowd – Sours just holds him in his arms. For several years now, Sours and his wife Carol have brought the tiny dog to the Rolling Thunder rally dressed in a combat helmet with four stars, and a tiny pair of sunglasses. Sometimes he’s wearing a leather vest like his owner.
Sours served as a Soldier in Vietnam, 1967-1968, where he drove a truck hauling petroleum, oils and lubricants. After serving in the Army, he worked at the Smithsonian Institute in Front Royal, Va. “I was in charge of building a fence for rare and endangered species,” he said.
He and his wife are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary over Memorial Day weekend, and he said the two have been together for as long as they have “because we like to do the same things. We’re outdoor people,” he said.
Carol added, “I love riding. We have horses, we’ve had horses for many years. We have ridden thousands of miles on horses. And we’ve done over 12,000 miles on bicycles. We used to do a lot of mountain biking. The C&O Canal – we did that. And then we got into this motorcycle riding.”
Buddy said it was Carol’s idea for them to get into motorcycling, back in 2006.
“She said why don’t we get a motorcycle? Which really surprised me,” Buddy said. “I still had a motorcycle license, and said that’s fine with me. We went out and got a cruiser, which is more comfortable.”
Carol doesn’t ride her own bike – Buddy drives, and she sits on the back and holds Isaiah in a carrier as they travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in the rally.
“It’s about all veterans, those that are past, and those present – respect for everybody,” Carol said. “This isn’t draft anymore. This is volunteer. You have to give much respect to those men and women who volunteer their lives for the freedom we have today.”
Buddy said he had friends die in Vietnam, and their names are on the memorial wall. The average age of the more than 58,000 service members whose names are on the wall is just over 23 years old. Buddy said he rides for all of them.
“All the things they have missed in their life because they gave all,” he said. “That’s why I do this.”
He also pointed out that the Rolling Thunder ride is not a parade — it’s a protest ride. “A protest because you still have people that are MIA, and possibly POWs that have not been accounted for,” he said. “We need to keep up the effort to make sure that every Soldier who gave all is back home.”