Rolling Thunder brings perfect Harleys, good will, dedication to nation's capital (The Washington Times)

May 23, 2015

By Jennifer Harper  

Perfect, spotless Harley Davidsons were lined up by the hundreds around several northern Virginia hotels on Saturday night – chrome polished to mirror finish, American flags in abundance, good will in the air. In 10 hours the nearby Pentagon parking lot would begin to fill up – the only area large enough to use as a staging area for Rolling Thunder’s 28th annual “Ride for Freedom,” the inimitable event that draws attention to veterans and military issues, plus POWs and those missing in action. When the time comes, several hundred thousand motorcycles typically gather; they roll, and there is indeed thunder. Much thunder.

The organization took some time together the night before, however – to focus on a little business, say some prayers of thankfulness and for safety, recognize a few of their own and share a meal. A chaplain stepped forward to remember the fallen, and to pray for safety on the ride.

Actor Robert Patrick, seen in “The Terminator,” among many sci-fi thriller and action films and broadcast roles, was part of the vast group. Clad in denim, a chain at his belt, Mr. Patrick stood with the rest of Rolling Thunder clan, enjoying the company.

“I missed my daughter’s graduation to be here, that’s how important this is to me” he said in an interview. “But there’s no better way to keep the nation focused on vets, our wounded warriors, our active duty military. I’m here to show my respect for the American military.”

Many were there: World War II and Vietnam-era vets, wounded warriors under the care of Walter Reed National Military Hospital, former POWs, Gold Star Mothers, families, volunteers. Iconic singer Nancy Sinatra – the talent behind the 1960s anthem “These Boots Are Made for Walking” – never misses the annual ride, citing her USO tours during the Vietnam era which changed her perspective about the military forever.

Mark Bertolini was just a few tables over, also dressed in denim and black leather vest, and very much a part of things. Mr. Bertolini is chairman and CEO of Aetna, named one of the “World’s 50 Best Leaders” by Fortune Magazine.

The healthcare benefits company has sponsored the annual ride for the last seven years, also donating to the organization’s charitable foundation dedicated to homeless veterans, and vets in need of such basic necessities as food and rent. Things got started when Mr. Bertolini met Rolling Thunder founder Artie Muller, an Army vet himself.

“When I met Artie, the first thing I said was ‘Dude, how can I help?'” the CEO said in an interview. “I was of college age during the Vietnam era, but I had a very high draft number at the time. I did not go overseas. But I had friends who did, and one who did not come back. Aetna is very proud to support Rolling Thunder.”

The riders began assembling at the Pentagon at 7 a.m. Sunday, to roll out at high noon and assemble at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. “This is a demonstration, not a parade,” the organizers advised.