rolling thunder

Family member visits gravsites at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery in Spring Lake, N.C. May 28, 2021. Photo: Maya Reagan, Carolina Journal

In Spring Lake, N.C., flags dot a hillside in stoic formation. Red, white, and blue flutters in the breeze over gravestones, reminding all who pass of true sacrifice.

This weekend at the Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery, Wreaths Across America has left its mark, honoring fallen soldiers with flags on their graves. Some of the headstones date as far back as 1950. There, Private First Class James Mullins is buried after being killed in 1950 in South Korea at age of 18. He was not officially accounted for until 2012. His grave is among those honored. Others markers there are as new as May of 2021.

Ann Provencher is WAA coordinator for the Spring Lake veteran’s cemetery and chairman of Rolling Thunder, North Carolina, Chapter 1.  She is an Army veteran herself, is married to an Army veteran, is the daughter of a veteran, and she is a Blue Star mother because her children serve. She and her family came to Fort Bragg in 2003 where she got involved with a Blue Star Mother’s group in Four Oaks, N.C. Ann will spend this Memorial Day remembering the fallen while bikers roll across N.C. highways from Elkin to Statesville as part of a new plan to put Rolling Thunder, Ride for Freedom events in each state, in addition to the traditionally massive gathering in Washington, D.C.

“The local rides are brand new,” said Provencher. “Two years ago they decided that it would be the last ride in D.C. They were spending so much money on security and Pentagon parking lot fees, they could do so much more with that money. Plus, doing it at the local level gets the message to so many more people.

“It was turning into more of a parade, but it’s not; it’s a protest to let the government know that we are not giving up on the missing. There are more than 82,000 service members still missing today.”

Rolling Thunder is a tradition started 34 years ago in Washington, D.C., and despite previous plans to discontinue that event, they will still ride in protest in the nation’s capital Sunday, May 30.  The event raises awareness for those missing service members, plus the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day in America.

Despite the cause and the tradition, earlier this month the Pentagon Special Event Team revoked AMVET’s permit to use the Pentagon parking lot for gathering before the ride. After much back and forth over federal bureaucrats’ concerns about large gatherings and COVID, a group of 33 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. Madison Cawthorne, a N.C. Republican, sent a letter to President Biden urging him to allow the Rolling Thunder veterans to use the Pentagon parking lot. The permit was still denied.

AMVETS finally secured a gathering spot just this week for Sunday’s ride. They will launch more than 50,000 bikers from the RFK Stadium parking lot instead.

“The biggest disappointment in the Pentagon’s denial was that AMVETS was ignored for months as its professional staff in Washington requested numerous times an opportunity to hear the Defense Department’s concerns and present a COVID-19 safety plan to the Pentagon’s decision-makers before rendering a decision,” said AMVETS National Commander Jan Brown. “In the end, the Pentagon decided to deny the application without any meaningful communication with AMVETS.”

They will not end with the traditional gathering on the National Mall this year; rather, a series of smaller spread-out events will take place.

Back home in North Carolina, families of veterans buried at Sandhill State Veterans Cemetery, and others like it across the state, look at this weekend as a chance to mourn, celebrate a life of heroism, and educate others. Wreath Across America works to ensure future generations fully understand the sacrifices made for their freedom. The more than 3,000 veterans and their family members buried here each represent an empty seat at family picnics and Thanksgiving tables.

“They say that people die twice, once when their soul leaves their body, but again when they are forgotten,” said Ann. “We make sure that they are not forgotten.”

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