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Rolling Thunder's Ride for Freedom an emotional experience

Suzi McKee • Jul 3, 2017 at 4:30 PM

Teachers often wonder if they really made a difference in the lives of their students. After 25 years, lives have changed, children have been born, and young men and women rarely think of their high school days. But recently I went along with a group of “kids” I taught when they were only 15 years old at Sullivan North High School on the Rolling Thunder Ride for Freedom to Washington D.C. Two of them had been in the Marine Corps and all were now members of Rolling Thunder Tennessee Chapter 4; we were introduced to the members and officers who warmly welcomed us to share the ride. My husband, an Air Force veteran, and I were able to attend this very patriotic and impressive event that brings awareness to all MIAs and POWs with former students Billy Evans (Dawn), Roy and Becky Fanning, Sam Fanning (Sherry), and James and Jonnie Fanning. With the exception of Dawn and Sherry, I had taught them all.

After a safety and communication demonstration by Bob Rambo, Chairman of the Board, kickstands went up at 10:15 a.m. on Thursday, May 25, and our journey began. About 30 bikes made the short ride to Marion, Va., where we were greeted by mayor David Helms and a large crowd of citizens who thanked each member in our group for their service to our country. Mayor Helms explained that the 1,000 American flags around the Courthouse grounds were placed by sports teams and school children, “so we can get more young people involved in patriotic events.” Each American flag represents a veteran from Marion who has made the ultimate sacrifice.

Another touching tribute on the grounds is a Missing Man Chair that Bob Rambo explained had been placed there four years ago by Rolling Thunder Tennessee Chapter 4. “In fact, we have placed 20 chairs in prominent locations around our area,” he added.

After the Missing Man Table Ceremony, roll call and taps, our group headed to the Francis Marion VFW Post 4667 where the ladies auxiliary served lunch to us and the police officers who had escorted us into town.

We arrived in Washington along with almost a million other bikes. Our first event was the Flame of Freedom Ceremony held by Native American Warriors in the Native American section of Arlington National Cemetery. Speakers explained some of the Native American traditions for their tribes and we learned more about relatives who had fought and died in battles for American Freedom. Nicolette Rose spoke about her uncle who was the first Native American graduate of the Air Force Academy and the first to be accepted into the NASA Program. He was killed in action and never got to enter the NASA ranks.

The Ride for Freedom itself was on Sunday morning, May 28. Bikes were parked end-to-end with only walking space between the rows in the Pentagon parking lots. If you’ve ever been to a NASCAR race, it’s the same atmosphere except with motorcycles and a LOT of them. With Rolling Thunder members from across the country and a large representation of veterans present, patriotism is proudly displayed with hats, pins, patches and vests that signify club membership or military affiliation. Christian motorcycle clubs provided water and sandwiches for bikers. With vendors offering food, Band-Aids, bags, bandanas and a plethora of T-shirts commemorating the event, bikers browsed until time for the ride to begin. “It’s a peaceful and respectful gathering,” said Tom Wills who’s been attending for six years. “I’ve never seen property damage, violence or fights, and all garbage will be left in cans or bags instead of being strewn about as with some of the other protest groups like Occupy Wall Street.”

The lineup touches a participant no matter your political views. The first group to start the demonstration ride is the Vietnam Vets or “Nam Knights” as they are called. They rode single file out of the parking lot for 30 minutes while others stood quietly watching them. I found it a special tribute to men who came home from Vietnam and were treated with disrespect. Following them were the motorcycle escorts for Gold Star Mothers and Fathers. These parents have lost sons and daughters in the battle for freedom around the world. Their bikes are adorned with flowers, Gold Stars and ribbons in memory of a loved one. Rolling Thunder moved out next two-by-two with a rumble that definitely touches your heart and soul. Knowing that you are riding for POWs and MIAs adds a special feeling of patriotism to the experience. Imagine thousands of bikes all starting at the same time.

During the ride that crossed Memorial Bridge and traversed Constitution Avenue, we passed the “Saluting Marine” that I had met the day before. Staff Sergeant Tim Chambers stands at attention for each bike in the ride. In his Marine dress blues, he holds the salute to honor each veteran. As we rode by, each member of our group felt a special connection to this Marine who had written personal notes to us on Saturday in the Harley Davidson Shop in Washington.

One of the most powerful visits we made was to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. When you look upon the wall you can see your reflection at the same time you see engraved names; symbolically this connects the past with the present. I asked Sam Fanning if I could take his picture here. He knelt, touched the wall, and prayed. “You know when I touched that wall it was as if they were coming out of there,” Sam shared.

This trip was an emotional experience for my husband, Jeff, and me. The “kids” call him Jeff, yet still call me “Miss McKee” after 25 years. My takeaways: patriotism is alive and well in our country as evidenced by the large crowds lined along the streets and overpasses to wish us well. Each and every veteran deserves our respect and admiration; I learned that they all have a story to tell. And when you touch lives in a positive way, time only makes that bond stronger when you’re all grown up and smiling at your teacher through majestic beards that can’t hide pride, love and a commitment to remembering those who are still missing or held captive.

Locally, Rolling Thunder Tennessee Chapter 4 participates in veterans’ funerals by providing motorcycle escorts, holding vigils, conducting funeral services and serving as pall bearers. The Chapter participates in 30 to 40 events at the VA and Mountain Home National Cemetery each year and extends financial aid to qualifying veterans. If you’re interested in becoming a member of Rolling Thunder, contact the local chapter at Rolling Thunder, P.O. Box 220, Mountain Home, TN 37684.

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