Common Tread

Rolling Thunder: "I went, and I will never be the same"

May 30, 2014

About a month ago, a friend asked if I was going to Rolling Thunder. My first reaction was, "That's too many motorcycles to be around at the same time."

I've been to Sturgis and I've been to Harley-Davidson's 110th anniversary, where there were literally seas of bikes, but Rolling Thunder surpasses even those major events.

For my friend, whose son serves in the Air Force, Rolling Thunder was a way to show support for his career path. Her question really got me thinking. Why do I want to go to Rolling Thunder? What does it truly mean to me to be there? Why does this even matter? I figured the only way to find out is to go.

So I went, and I will never be the same again.

We rode down from Philadelphia to Battley Cycles in Gaithersburg, Md., the starting point for one of the many police-escorted rides to the Pentagon. Thousands of motorcycles were gathered by the time we left. During the brief riders meeting, one of the dealership reps said some words that stuck with me.

“You are riding to honor those who have died... you are riding for those who may have lost hope... you are riding to show the community you care about our military, our country... you are riding as a representative that freedom does not come for free.”

As I looked over the crowd, I saw the emotional impact those words had on people. But that was just the beginning. As the escorted ride continued through Gaithersburg, we passed people on the street, some holding flags and signs saying “Thank you,” some shedding tears. The State Police closed down the entire route for us all the way to the Pentagon, the only time this six-lane highway is shut down. On one stretch of highway, I saw a truck ahead with flags hanging from it. As we passed, I saw an old man in his full dress military uniform holding a salute. That’s when it hit me! I became extremely emotional and seriously cried the rest of the way. The pride he had for our country was truly breathtaking.

At the Pentagon, we joined thousands upon thousands of other motorcyclists and chatted with them as we waited our turn to ride through Washington. Rolling Thunder is essentially a five-hour parade to honor those killed in combat, prisoners of war, missing in action and those who did make it home.

Finally, it was our turn to head out for the parade. We rode on streets packed with folks waving flags, holding signs, pointing cameras or just smiling with joy. This sort of joy just took over my soul. I got very teary-eyed during the entire parade. We were led to a huge grass field with the Washington monument as our backdrop. From there, we decided to walk towards the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

It had been years since I had seen it. Pictures, signs and personal items were piled everywhere along the wall. Most of the signs said MIA or POW. I become very emotional when I saw this. It wasn’t just one or two. It was hundreds and hundreds! The pictures of these young men, handsome young men, and their lives taken away from them, and for what? These are the thoughts that clouded my head. Part of it anger, part of it emotion, and the rest just a sense of hopelessness.

While all this was going through my head, I looked up to see a man turn away from the wall as he wiped tears from his eyes. I walked up to him and said, “We all lose loved ones, but we will never forget them,” and I thanked him for his service. He looked at me and smiled, but he didn’t say a word. I turned and cried the rest of the way along the wall as I continued to reflect on the heaviness I felt inside. It was enough to suffocate me.

The day continued on with other, similar interactions. My friends and I talked among ourselves about the emotions we felt that day and the tears we shed. My buddy, Jim, said it best when he said, “You are not human if today did not make you emotional.”

Now, I did have the same feelings during 9/11, but this experience was far more emotional for me in such a different way. As an Arab-American who received my U.S. citizenship at the age of 11, 9/11 turned into a time for me to question my identity. Do I hide my identity for the sake of my safety? Or do I share it? I found myself hiding my identity, because our society grew to hate the part of the world where I was born. Even though I was born a Roman Catholic in Jordan, some folks still believed “all Arabs are Muslim terrorists,” right?

To get to my point, 9/11 changed the way society and my community thought of me. I become a threat. I became unwanted. Society hated Arabs. I was being told to leave this country. I did not belong here.

Our veterans, when they came back from Vietnam, were not honored. They were not given a police escort home from the airport. There were no hometown parades, no people lining the streets to greet them and kiss them. Many were greeted with hate, were spit on and called names. Families turned their backs on them. This is how they were treated, and this is how many of them began to question their own identity. This is how I connected with my experience at Rolling Thunder.

The fact of the matter is, who we are deep down inside does not change. We can hide where we have been and what we have done, but in the long run we know the truth.

The truth is this country is the home of the brave. It was founded on this idea: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…”

That is our foundation, not hate! Our soldiers pledged their allegiance “to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Many never saw justice, and the one nation under God turned against them.

Rolling Thunder is an event that takes the wrong in all of this and makes it right. Rolling Thunder was founded on the idea that we can bring justice by bringing unity in numbers, and proving we can all respect the sacrifice of others.

And that, my friends, is what I learned during this Memorial Day weekend.

I promise you, I will never forget!