Record Turnout Marks Rolling Thunder Ride's 20th Anniversary

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007

The day is known for its ability to evoke power through the thunderous collective rumble of thousands of motorcycles rolling through downtown Washington.

But for Johnny "Halftime" Penn, 31, of Lancaster, Pa., the power is also in quiet solemnity. That's how he described his mood yesterday as he sat near the Lincoln Memorial and paid tribute to his father, Thomas, a Vietnam veteran who died of cancer in 1987.

"This is for my dad. . . . Every year, it's for him," said Penn, who added that he usually participates in the event with his father's friends but this year decided to come by himself. "I've ridden ever since I was 18 to honor his memory . . . but this year I decided to come and just kneel and be quiet and think about his sacrifice."

Penn joined thousands of military veterans and their loved ones who marked the 20th anniversary of the pilgrimage to the nation's capital in support of U.S. military members past and present.

Known as Rolling Thunder, the riders honked, waved and gunned their engines to the delight of onlookers as they circled the Mall and rode up and down Constitution and Independence avenues. Clad in leather vests adorned with pins and buttons, bandannas, black helmets and motorcycle boots, riders cheered speakers who extolled the nation's veterans and urged the U.S. government to bring home its dead and missing, in Vietnam and elsewhere.

A group of the organization's leaders rode up the White House's driveway on eight bikes, led by Rolling Thunder founder and Executive Director Artie Muller, to meet with President Bush.

"Artie -- how you doin', Artie?" Bush said as Muller pulled up with his wife, Elaine, according to a pool report released by the White House. "Good to see you again."

After posing for pictures, Bush invited the 13 riders into the Oval Office. Muller said the group met with Bush for 35 minutes and discussed topics from how the United States could be more aggressive in looking for prisoners of war to mental-health issues among veterans.

"The president has always been receptive to our issues," said Muller, who met with Bush during Rolling Thunder's 2004 event.

Meanwhile, thousands of riders thronged the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to pay homage. They left flowers and wreaths, along with handwritten notes. A spokesman for the U.S. Park Police said there was one reported arrest for disorderly conduct. Maryland officials said there was a morning accident on Interstate 270 involving a Rolling Thunder biker, but authorities said the event went off well.

As it has been every Memorial Day since 1987, the ride was attended by thousands of Vietnam veterans, many of whom rode with their families. Organizers said it was the largest ride yet.

Street closures to accommodate the event caused traffic jams and frustration near the Mall and on the Potomac River bridge crossings. Traffic from the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge was routed from Constitution Avenue starting mid-morning, causing backups into Arlington. Some motorists complained that they were not notified about the closures, saying no warnings were provided by overhead traffic advisory signs. Officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation said they began informing Interstate 66 motorists of the detours on signs about 9:30 a.m.

In the District, Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th Street and Seventh Street was jammed as motorists were routed away from the Ninth Street tunnel.

"Traffic, traffic, weekday, weekend," said Hank Jackman, an Alexandria resident who said he was stuck in traffic approaching the city yesterday morning. He was careful not to blame parade participants. "It's part of life."

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