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Thunder Still Rolls After 20 Years

RANCHO CUCAMONGA -- It started in 1989 as a road trip across the heartland of the United States. Participants of the inaugural Run For The Wall ride were just a couple of veterans who loved their motorcycles and loved their country even more.

http://www.military.com/news/article/thunder-still-rolls-after-20-years.html?col=1186032310810&wh=news

May 18, 2009
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

They started in San Diego and ended in Washington, D.C., where they joined a group of riders known as Rolling Thunder. Together, they were several dozen veterans at the nation's capital honoring prisoners of war and those missing in action.

Last Wednesday , more than 350 bikes roared out of Victoria Gardens to start a journey that's as much about patriotism as it is about camaraderie and healing. Next Sunday, hundreds of thousands more motorcycle riders will join them and descend upon Washington, twenty years after the first ride out of San Diego.

"It's not a strenuous ride but it's an emotional roller coaster," said Daryl Neil, from Phoenix. "If you want to see a bunch of old men cry, come on the ride."

Most of the Run For The Wall participants are Vietnam veterans and their supporters. The men come in leather chaps; the women with pink helmets.

Some come in Harleys that sparkle in the sun. There are bikes with GPS units and bikes with heated seats. Some rented motorcycles specifically for the occasion.

This is Charlie Del Campo's fifth ride going "all the way" to the capital. The Long Beach resident said his first ride was a pivotal moment in his life because fellow veterans welcomed him with open arms to the yearly ritual, and he had the opportunity to truly reflect on his service in Vietnam.

Del Campo said he makes the journey each year so he can help the other veterans who are riding for the first time.

New riders are marked by a special "FNG" pin, which stands for "fun new guy/gal." The newbies usually get an extra pat on the back followed by a hearty greeting. "FNG" is a take on the military term that describes new guys with a more vulgar adjective.

Minutes before Del Campo was to start the 10-day journey, he saw a man with an "FNG" pin.

"Hey FNG, welcome home," Del Campo said. "I'll be your wingman."

The group of motorcycle riders will go on two routes passing through Arizona, Texas, Indiana and other states before arriving in Virginia on May 22. Today, the group taking the central route are in Junction City, Kan; the southern route riders are in Monroe, La.

Although the yearly pilgrimage has been going on for two decades, Roger Phelan, who lives near Shreveport, La., just found out about it this year. Phelan served in the Air Force during the Vietnam and Gulf wars.

"Being here is starting to bring back memories," Phelan said minutes before leaving Victoria Gardens. "Some of these guys haven't thought about the memories in 40 years. And when you remember ... you re-deal."

This journey for Phelan started the day before the ride, when a group of 60 riders toured the Riverside National Cemetery and met three Medal of Honor recipients. They also met Lewis Lee Millett Jr., the creator of the POW monument located in the cemetery.

Phelan said he had heard about the memorials at the Riverside cemetery and thought it was a pipe dream. Last week, he was finally able to join other veterans and tour the cemetery, which many refer to as the West Coast Arlington.

At the cemetery's Medal of Honor monument, Ray Wyatt of Fort Worth, Texas, found the name of someone he knew on the memorial wall. It was the brother of Wyatt's high school teacher.

Standing near the list of recipients' names, Wyatt said, "Every one of these names did something that far exceed what was expected of them."

This year's ride -- his first to go "all the way" -- is particularly significant because it has been 40 years since his cousin, Tommy Wyatt, died in the Vietnam War at the age of 21.

Wyatt remembers talking to his cousin before deployment and wondering what combat in Vietnam was going to be like. Wyatt, who also served in the army like his father and uncles, is now having a similar conversation with his son.

"I told my son that when you serve the country, you vow to write a check saying you're willing to sacrifice everything up to and including your life," Wyatt said.

Wyatt's son will be deployed later this year.

"As a parent, you're very scared. You want him to be safe," Wyatt said.

Although the ride mostly brings out Vietnam veterans, an increasing number of their younger counterparts from the Gulf War and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are starting to join.

Neil, the Phoenix native who served in the Army for 22 years, said hopefully the event will continue to raise awareness of veterans' causes and encourage veterans and their supporters to join.

"We meet as strangers," Phoenix said, "but we walk away as brothers."