A ride to remember, AF veteran helps keep memories alive

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Alexander W. Riedel
  • Air Force News Service
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

When motorcycle riders pass each other on the street, most will share a short wave as a sign of respect and acknowledgment of a common bond.

Veterans often share a similar bond that is less visible in daily life.

Every Memorial Day weekend since 1988, however, the two domains combine as thousands of veterans from around the country meet for the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle run through downtown Washington, D.C. Here, they celebrate a common thread of service and show their respect for those who were lost from their ranks.

For four years now, an Airman rides at the front of the pack from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Memorial. Retired Master Sgt. Rob Wilkins is a member of the volunteer organization’s board of directors and contributor to Rolling Thunder Magazine.

“The main goal of Rolling Thunder is to recognize and to never forget the nation’s Prisoners of War (POW) and those Missing In Action (MIA) as well as their families,” Wilkins said. “They were asked to serve this country and many made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of this country – we want to keep their memory alive."

Aptly named after the first sustained aerial bombing campaign of the Vietnam War, the non-partisan, organized motorcycle ride is likewise the first sustained effort to raise awareness of the continued search for POW/MIA’s.

True to its name, thousands of riders start their bikes in rumbling unison and begin a thunderous motorcade from the Pentagon, past Arlington National Cemetery through the capital ending at the Korean and Vietnam War memorials. While onlookers wave American and the distinctly black POW/MIA flags, hours pass from the first until the final rider finishes the course.

“For many, the first time they experience Rolling Thunder, it’s an emotional experience for them," Wilkins said. "Seeing hundreds of thousands of bikers, hearing the roar of hundreds of thousands of bikes and seeing our beautiful flag, flying freely, is something to behold. It’s an amazing sight and swells your chest with pride."

After a humble beginning with 25,000 riders, the event has since grown to gigantic proportions with 1.3 million spectators and riders attending on the 25th anniversary -- making it the largest single-day motorcycle event in the world, Wilkins said.

While the thunderous noise of thousands of motorcycles of all shapes and sizes attracts tourists, motorcycle fans and military families alike, the patriotic core of the event is ever-present, Wilkins said. Despite the rumble of the engines and crowds of onlookers, what separates Rolling Thunder from other biker rallies is its solemn occasion and purpose. It's a place of solace where Veterans can commune, exchange stories and come together as family.

"Because of the respect everybody has for the Rolling Thunder Demonstration Run, it’s a “trouble-free” zone," Wilkins said. "Law enforcement officials have commented that they see fewer arrests over the entire Rolling Thunder weekend than there are during a Washington Redskins football game. (Rolling Thunder attendees) police themselves.

"In addition to being a family-friendly environment, we are also proud of the diverse crowd that participates in the run," he added. "We are honored that people often tell us, after attending the run, they are full of pride and patriotism.”

Wilkins' path to Rolling Thunder has been influenced by the lessons learned on his service in the Air Force.

Born in Linden, New Jersey, he decided to join the Air Force in 1983 and began his career at the now-closed Prüm Air Station, Germany.

“I joined the Air Force because I wanted to see the world,” Wilkins said. “I lived in a small town and I thought the military, in particular the Air Force, would give me a vehicle to see the world and have adventures. And I’ve had incredible opportunities along the way.”

As an information manager, he later served with crews of the renowned SR-71 Blackbird in England and F-16 Fighting Falcon teams in Italy. His most recent assignment brought Wilkins to Washington, D.C., as the superintendent for operations, Air Operations Division, in the office of the legislative liaison for the secretary of the Air Force. Assisting members of congress and the U.S. delegation to the NATO parliamentary assembly took the career NCO around the world.

“In this demanding role, I learned how important teamwork, being organized and maintaining a can-do attitude are in accomplishing the mission," he said. "I was part of a team of dedicated individuals who worked extremely hard and ensured our mission was done in the most professional manner possible. Having the opportunity to serve the Air Force and our nation in such a highly-visible position was an honor and exciting time."

From tiny Prüm Air Station to the halls of the Pentagon, Wilkins said he learned that mentorship and paying back to those who sacrificed is an important part of the military family. Another important role, he said, is educating others.

Many citizens without a military background or family are still unaware that a staggering number of U.S. service members remain unaccounted for -- giving the mass event an informational role.

“We’ve formed around the POW-MIA issue and a lot of people have no idea what that is,” said Rolling Thunder co-founder and executive director Walt Sides. “People often ask us what ‘POW-MIA’ stands for – and we’re happy to explain and share why we come out.”

The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, currently lists approximately 83,000 men and women missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War. This push for closure is central to the motorcycle rally.

“Rolling Thunder has been the leading force in keeping the issue alive and making sure these people are not forgotten — because they’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we all enjoy,” Wilkins said. “And my hope is that out of the thousands of people attending Rolling Thunder, some return home and thank their own family members for their service to this great nation.” 

Although too young to be a Vietnam veteran, Wilkins is part of a new generation of veterans that have adopted the cause of Rolling Thunder as their own with no less fervor. The need to keep the memory of POWs and MIA personnel alive struck a nerve, he said.

Wilkins joined the effort following his retirement from uniformed service in 2009, after his wife, Amy, attended the event as a spectator with their young son, Robert, and was positively surprised.

“At first I dismissed it as a motorcycle event, with bikers and trouble,” Wilkins said. “But the motorcycle connotation of gangs, fights and trouble comes from the 60s and 70s. At Rolling Thunder, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not just for bikers, per se. My wife enjoyed watching the bikes roll by, and felt completely safe in the crowds despite pushing my son in a stroller. Each year, more and more families attend Rolling Thunder, which we feel is a great way to educate our youth on the importance of service and sacrifice.”

Wilkins, who now works as director for audience development at a large magazine publishing company that specializes in military history, decided to use his media experience to help spread the word about the event and its banner cause.

“It’s an honor to be here, because the oral histories are so important,” he said. “If our American heroes don’t share their personal stories, 50 to 100 years from now we are not going to know what happened. It’s important to document history and document it as accurately as possible — not just of the Pattons and MacArthurs, but also of the average men and women who served their country but after taking off the uniform, fully transitioned into civilian life. The service of these men and women cannot be forgotten and we must do all we can to recognize them and thank them and their families for the many freedoms we enjoy.”

At Rolling Thunder, Wilkins said, this history gains shape in the numbers and faces of veteran riders.

“If you want to meet a hero, come to Rolling Thunder, because you’re going to be surrounded by thousands of them,” Wilkins said. “The event turns into a celebration of the heroes and survivors, like Walt. These are resilient men and women who faced many obstacles but overcame them and now are mentors and role models for the next generation of military personnel.”

This resilience, Wilkins said, can also serve as inspiration for younger generations of veterans.

"Veterans are resilient and by participating in events like Rolling Thunder, our hope is that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans continue to seek out the veterans that served before them and use them as a source of information, inspiration and wisdom as they make the sometimes difficult transition from the military to civilian life."

For many Veterans, Rolling Thunder is also an opportunity to meet old friends and talk with former wingmen, shipmates and battle buddies. Burdened with memories that few others understand, Sides said as a retired Marine first sergeant and Marine scout sniper he enjoys the company of those who share his experiences.

“You don’t really speak about it to people who weren’t there,” he said of his experience in Vietnam. ”It’s kind of an unspoken code. I can’t tell you about it and make you believe it anyway.”

Rolling Thunder is an opportunity for those veterans to come together and share these experiences, Wilkins added.

“If you live in a small town, you may not have another combat veteran near you, and others, while sympathetic, may not truly understand what going through combat does to you” Wilkins said. “But when you come to Rolling Thunder, you’re likely going to be able to identify with somebody that has walked in your shoes and can understand what you’ve experienced and maybe able to lend a hand. Being able to communicate and share your thoughts and feelings is vital to moving forward.”

Meanwhile, the work to find and repatriate long-lost comrades continues, driven by small, but regular successes. Most recently, DPMO recovered the remains of Capt. Douglas D. Ferguson, an Air Force pilot whose F-4D Phantom II crashed during a reconnaissance mission over Laos in 1969. Ferguson was only 24.

These successes and repatriations encourage Wilkins and his fellow Rolling Thunder riders to keep up their efforts to maintain awareness — “Until they all come home.”

“Veterans will keep Rolling Thunder going for many years to come,“ he said with bright smile. “But the event is not just for motorcyclists and veterans. If you want to show your support and commemorate those who served, come on down and ride with us, because there is a place for you here.

We always say, ‘Bring a smile and bring some tissues, because you’re going to be inspired but other things are going to make you shed a tear or two.’”

(May is National Motorcycle Safety month. For more information on safe riding practices, for Rolling Thunder and beyond, visit the Air Force Rider website at http://www.afsec.af.mil/airforcerider/)