The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Motorcycle ride similar to Rolling Thunder rolls on with a new name and sponsor

People gather near the Pentagon for Rolling Thunder on May 26, 2019, in Arlington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The massive Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally staged in Washington each Memorial Day weekend had its final ride last year, but the roar of engines isn’t going away.

The annual ride to honor veterans, which draws hundreds of thousands of people to the Washington region each year, began in 1988 after Artie Muller, who served in the Vietnam War as an infantry sergeant, sought to call attention to prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.

Muller had announced Rolling Thunder would end its run in the nation’s capital last year, citing a lack of cooperation from Pentagon officials and “increased harassment to our supporters and sponsors.” The 2020 version of the ride has new organizers, a new sponsor and a new name, but participants and spectators might not notice the changes.

Rolling Thunder says 2019 motorcycle rally will be its last in D.C.

The ride, now called Rolling to Remember, will be Memorial Day weekend and “continue the tradition” of Rolling Thunder, according to its website. Its itinerary includes a blessing of the bikes, a vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and other events familiar to Rolling Thunder attendees.

President Trump weighed in last year during what appeared to be the final Rolling Thunder event, tweeting the ride “WILL be coming back to D.C.”

At the time, Muller said its future was uncertain. “We’re going see what happens,” Muller said after the president’s tweet.

However, four days before the May 2019 ride, a nonprofit group that lobbies for and offers assistance to veterans filed a permit application with the National Park Service for a Memorial Day event to be held this year. The application from AMVETS to use federal land over the holiday weekend referred to the event as “Rolling Thunder XXXIII.”

“The 2020 application was submitted by a different organizer, AMVETS,” Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst wrote in an email. “How the handoff was coordinated or when those discussions took place is something that only those groups will be able to discuss.”

Rolling Thunder takes what could be its final ride in Washington

AMVETS spokesman Miles Migliara said Muller is not involved in planning the new Rolling to Remember ride, although AMVETS’s executive director has “talked with Artie a lot.”

“The day that we were able to apply for the permit, we did,” Migliara said.

In an interview, Muller said AMVETS offered to “pay for the event and let us run it,” but he refused because of what he described as efforts to clamp down on security at the Pentagon. He said the 2019 event cost about $200,000, adding that the group lost about $20,000 that year after the Pentagon demanded additional security and restricted vendors.

In 2018, for example, he said officials refused him access to a Pentagon parking lot despite a permit he had secured. As a result, food and water that was meant to be distributed to Rolling Thunder participants was left sitting in trucks.

“I’ve run Rolling Thunder for 32 years,” he said. “I was tired of the [problems] from the Pentagon police. We were paying a fortune and all they do is hassle us.”

Muller said the agreement that AMVETS would run its own event wasn’t settled until after last year’s Rolling Thunder.

Pentagon officials did not respond to requests for comment.

On May 24, thousands of motorcyclists are expected to depart from the Pentagon and cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge, then pass the Lincoln Memorial before making a loop around the Mall. D.C. police say the group has filed a permit for the event.

Rolling Thunder’s last ride: Why a long, loud, beloved tradition is ending

Rolling to Remember could draw up to 1 million people, including family members of riders, Migliara said, and “will look very similar to what Rolling Thunder has done in the past.” He said organizers haven’t encountered problems with Pentagon officials or other authorities.

“We can’t use the name. It’s trademarked,” Migliara said of “Rolling Thunder,” as the ride was known for decades in Washington. “We’re excited to put it back on.”

While no longer affiliated with the ride in Washington, Rolling Thunder will continue rolling across the country. In a statement, Muller said he hopes “our loyal supporters will continue to participate in this annual Memorial Weekend event on the state level.”

The statement praised Trump, who Muller said met with Rolling Thunder members when signing the POW/MIA Flag Act in November. That law requires the black POW-MIA flag to be flown alongside the American flag at some federal buildings.

Some have heeded Muller’s call to ride closer to home. Bob Althoff, member of a Rolling Thunder chapter in Ohio, said organizers there started planning a Columbus ride the day they heard Muller’s announcement.

The Ohio event will coincide with rides in North Carolina, Texas and New Jersey, among others. There will even be a Rolling Thunder-affiliated ride in Washington alongside the rebranded Rolling to Remember event.

Althoff said Rolling Thunder riders “don’t want to be put in the position of competing with the AMVETS. We wish them well.”

“The whole point of what’s been happening for 32 years is ‘Never forget,’ ” he said. “What are we going to do — forget?”

Rolling Thunder says 2019 motorcycle rally will be its last in D.C.

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