By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 30, 2005
Donna Long arrived on the Mall before 6 a.m. yesterday and took up her post inside a wooden structure about the size of a storage shed. For the next nine hours, the 62-year-old grandmother from Chantilly greeted hundreds of leather-clad bikers, military veterans and ordinary tourists who stopped to examine the patches, pins and POW-MIA bracelets for sale.
Most were in town for the 18th annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle procession, which commemorates those missing in action from Vietnam and other wars and advocates for stronger government action to find them and bring them home.
Long sold an Operation Iraqi Freedom pin to a biker from New York whose brother-in-law recently returned from two tours of duty. She helped Lt. Col. Steven W. Kihara find a scarce pin from the 9th Cavalry Regiment, a now-defunct Army unit to which he was assigned years ago. In a sympathetic voice, she told Vietnam veteran Ray Dunn, 55, that she did not have a patch from his Pathfinders helicopter unit.
To a family of four vacationing from Long Island, Long sold three $10 prisoner of war/missing in action bracelets. One was imprinted with the name of Pfc. Keith "Matt" Maupin, who has been missing in Iraq for more than a year.
"His mother and father were just here, and they told me, 'Don't give up on him,' " Long said to Maggie and John Harlow and their children, Stacey, 13, and Michael, 11. She encouraged them to check an Internet site that tracks soldiers who are unaccounted for. "You go there, and you keep up-to-date on Matt," she said.
Long is one of many volunteers who staff the four privately run booths on the plaza between the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, selling memorabilia and dispensing information, solace and camaraderie.
The booths are staffed 24 hours a day year round in a constant vigil, organizers said. And they are perhaps never busier than on Memorial Day weekend, when an estimated 400,000 bikers are among those who visit Washington to commemorate the sacrifices of U.S. servicemen and women.
The massive motorcycle procession from the Pentagon to the U.S. Capitol and back to the Lincoln Memorial continued long after the speeches had begun on a stage by the Reflecting Pool. Maupin's parents, who rode with the veterans, spoke briefly.
Rolling Thunder Chairman Mike Cobb said President Bush should be doing more to search for missing soldiers and fund veterans' health care. Bush met the bikers at the White House last year while campaigning for reelection and pledged his support.
"We've had promises, and they're not being done," Cobb said. "We supported this president. . . . All we ask is, let's not forget our veterans."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke to warm applause but did not directly address the criticisms. "Our country has been so blessed with generation after generation who have stepped forward to defend our freedom," he said. " . . . Some did not return home. You with Rolling Thunder have not forgotten a single one of them."
The metal-roofed booths near the rally were erected more than a decade ago, replacing a collection of tents that sprang up after the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. A short walk from the black granite panels of the Wall, they are a homespun alternative to the National Park Service's more formal information booth nearby.
They are a place to compare memories, to look in a directory or a computer database for information about those who never came home. Two booths are run by the D.C. chapter of the nonprofit Rolling Thunder, and the others are run by individual activists.
Long volunteered six days a week until this past winter, when poor health forced her to cut back to weekends. She learned about MIAs from her husband, a Marine who survived two tours in Vietnam. He was later killed in a car accident.
Since 1972, she's worn a bracelet honoring Gary LaBohn, an Army sergeant who'd gone missing four years earlier.
"It becomes your extended family," she said yesterday between customers. "When you wear one of these bracelets, it's like he becomes your brother. As long as you wear the bracelet, it means he's not forgotten."
More than once, Long has watched two strangers looking at the same patch at her booth discover that they served in the same unit and know the same people. More than once, she has met people who served with her husband.
But nothing is as important, she said, as when the families of MIA servicemen stop by "and they thank you for being here and for not forgetting about" their loved ones.
Another booth was manned by Lee Roy Joyner, 60, a Vietnam veteran from Southeast Washington who has volunteered for nine years "in memory of all the guys who served and didn't come back."
Joyner said he likes talking to veterans and handing out wooden disks imprinted with patriotic slogans. The young guys get the ones that say, "9-11 Remembered" and "You can run but you can't hide." The older guys get the ones that say, "Some gave all, all gave some" and "University of South Vietnam: School of Warfare."
"We all graduated from there," Joyner said.
Those who stopped by yesterday included Eugene Simpson, 27, a staff sergeant paralyzed from the waist down 13 months ago by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Simpson, of Dale City, sat in his wheelchair, looking through the display case at a patch from his old Army unit.
Nearby, Navy veteran Jerry Cunningham was looking up information about missing veterans on a laptop and using an engraving machine to make custom POW-MIA bracelets.
"I don't want this issue to go away," said Cunningham, 66, who spent parts of every year from 1965 to 1972 in Vietnam. "What's done is done. We can't change that we left people behind. We need to make sure that it never, ever happens again."
Staff writer Sue Anne Pressley contributed to this report.