AMVETS to keep Rolling Thunder DC event going in 2020

Abbie Bennett
August 02, 2019 - 9:09 am

Rolling Thunder will keep on rolling. 

This year Rolling Thunder leadership, citing costs and communication issues, said 2019 would be its final ride. But Connecting Vets has learned veterans service organization AMVETS is stepping up to fill the gap and continue the annual Washington, D.C. event.

Rolling Thunder, an advocacy group focused on raising awareness of prisoners of war and missing in action service members, is best known for its annual event the Sunday before Memorial Day. Thousands of members of the group complete the "First Amendment Demonstration Run" or "Ride for Freedom," a slow motorcycle ride on a set route in Washington, D.C. from the Pentagon, over the Memorial Bridge and ending at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for POW/MIA awareness.

The group held its first demonstration in 1988 and came together as a group in 1995. It has more than 90 chapters across the U.S. and in other countries.

"We believe in the mission 100 percent," Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, told Connecting Vets in an exclusive interview. "We think it's vitally important that our nation knows we are not forgetting those who remain missing or are still unaccounted for."

An eight-page permit to conduct a special event or demonstration at the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., obtained by Connecting Vets, shows that AMVETS plans to hold the event next year. 

The applications was submitted May 22, 2019 -- a few days before this year's event. 

AMVETS Executive Director Joe Chenelly is listed as the "person in charge of the event" on the permit submitted to the National Park Service and his signature appears at the bottom. 

The permit lists the event as beginning May 22, 2020 and ending May 24, 2020 and calls for 50,000 participants, a podium and sound system, 18 portable restrooms, a stage and more. Chenelly said the stage will be near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with plans for patriotic entertainment. But he said he wanted to be clear that the mission of the event will remain the same. 

"This is a political demonstration," Chenelly said. "It's not a party. This is to show Congress, the White House and the administration that we cannot forget those who are still missing."

AMVETS also hopes to include a focus on "the veteran suicide epidemic," Chenelly said. According to Department of Veterans Affairs data, 20 veterans on average die by suicide daily. 

"We're not trying to take over Rolling Thunder or their organization or other rides they plan," Chenelly said. "But we want to do whatever it takes to continue that tradition for all the motorcycle-riding patriots who come in from all corners of the nation and give them a meaningful demonstration to take part in." 

The event will take "a lot of resources," he said, but AMVETS hopes to partner with other groups and sponsors and is looking for volunteers. 

"We're ready to do the heavy lift, but we know we're going to need some help. We want to work together to drive home that mission," he said. "We must never forget." 

Rolling Thunder was key in seeing the Missing Service Personnel Act pass in 1993, which prevents service members from being listed as killed in action without substantial evidence. The group helped author the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act of 2006, prohibiting protests within 300 feet of any veterans cemetery 60 minutes before and 60 minutes after a funeral, largely in response to the Westboro Baptist Church. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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