When my doctor told me I had a brain aneurysm that ultimately proved to be a false alarm last winter, I quit putting off things I wanted to do. Thinking you'll keel over at any minute is a good antidote to procrastination.
One thing I wanted to do was hop on a Harley for the annual Ride to the Wall in Washington, D.C. I wrote about it last year, when Boise rock icon Paul Revere rode from Seattle to Washington, joined a tide of 300,000 motorcycles at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and played a benefit concert for the nation's veterans. This year, I wanted to be there.
Southwest Airlines handled the Boise-to-Baltimore leg, but Easy Rider Woodward did get to climb on the back of a bike for the final seven miles of the ride, from the Pentagon to the Wall. It was like nothing else in my experience. If there were an antidote for emotional breakdowns, it would have flown off the shelves.
I knew there'd be lots of bikers. What I didn't know was the extent of their support. The streets were lined with crowds for the entire seven miles. Tens of thousands of people waved and cheered as we passed. Many were veterans cheering on their counterparts in Rolling Thunder, the veterans' motorcycle group that sponsors the event. Several Vietnam veterans waved from wheelchairs.
At one point, the motorcycles were backed up for 15 miles. It took 3 1/2 hours for all of them, riding five abreast, to reach the Wall. At the front of all those motorcycles and cheering spectators, riding next to Rolling Thunder president Artie Muller, was Revere in his trademark three-cornered hat. If you're from Idaho and were there to see it, especially if you grew up with Revere and his music, you had a lump in your throat. And that was nothing compared with the Wall itself.
There were veterans there who looked like they could eat Harleys for breakfast, sobbing openly. It's common for visitors to turn around and leave because it's too much for them. The thousands of names carved in the granite are sobering, but the mementos people leave are heartbreaking -- photos of young soldiers lost, their degrees and military medals, toys, letters from their spouses and the children they never knew. It was my first visit to the Wall, and it seemed endless. It wasn't so much its size as the endless heartache it represents.
One of the more eye-catching tributes was an unopened, collector's edition of the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" album. A combat photographer in Vietnam had received a copy when the album was new as a gift from his sister. He and a friend were only able to listen to one side before they were called out on a mission. The photographer never came back. Half a lifetime later, it still meant enough to his friend to bring him the music he never heard.
Muller has ridden his bike to the Wall every year since Rolling Thunder began its annual ride in 1987. Its official name is the Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom of all POW/MIAs. Accounting for missing or imprisoned American soldiers is the group's primary objective.
"Our government has never pressed to find out what happened to them, " Muller told me. "Every administration up to now has been against everything we've been trying to accomplish. They don't want to make the previous administrations look bad."
He and his Rolling Thunder co-workers have made some headway. They've gotten bills passed to help veterans receive benefits, protect future generations from being left behind in war zones, and grant U.S. refugee status to foreign nationals who help bring POW/MIAs back alive.
But they still have a long way to go. Forty-two POW/MIAs remain unaccounted for in the Persian Gulf, 2,000 in Vietnam, and nearly 9,000 in Korea. Hundreds still are thought to be alive.
"There's always money to fight a war, " Muller said, "but not to bring our people back. Once the war's over, the veterans don't seem to matter."
So it would seem. Government and media representation at the ride were minimal. After all they've done for us, we still do a pretty fair job of ignoring our veterans -- even when the rumble of their motorcycles fills the nation's capital.