Heir of Rolling Thunder legacy continues search for Memorial Day site

Rolling to Remember is looking for a spot in D.C. where it can carry on the motorcycle demonstrations for veterans that started 34 years ago.

Back then, it was Rolling Thunder riders who annually flocked to D.C. in order to honor war veterans who were either taken prisoner or are still Missing in Action.

But logistical headaches between Rolling Thunder and the Pentagon Police ultimately motivated the organizers to disband the event after its 2019 demonstration. Rolling to Remember, which is run by American Veterans, or AMVETS for short, picked up the baton later that same year.

Unfortunately, AMVETS is running into similar problems that Rolling Thunder organizers had.

“[The Pentagon] said that they have been tracking the spread of COVID-19 within the Northern Virginia area,” Joe Chenelly, National Executive Director for AMVETS, told WTOP. “And they looked at the nature of our event, which is a fairly large gathering that … everyone would be outside, but they said considering those things that they were going to deny it at this point.”

Chenelly said AMVETS’ biggest issue with the situation was they were never given the opportunity to explain how they could make the event COVID-safe, despite formally applying for a permit to hold their demonstration in the Pentagon’s parking lot last July.

The Pentagon’s counteroffer — that Rolling to Remember be held on Labor Day instead, when there would be more time to review AMVETS’ request — wasn’t seen as realistic.

“Labor Day weekend would not work for us,” Chenelly said, while acknowledging the organization did consider that at one point in time. “The nature of Memorial Day weekend — that’s a big part of why we’re demonstrating [and] when we’re demonstrating.”

For now, Chenelly said Plan B is to hold the rally in the parking lot of RFK Stadium. AMVETS should know by the middle of this week if that permit has been approved by the Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency.

Plan C, if it comes to that, would be to do something in the streets of D.C.

Chenelly said that would involve coordinating with D.C. police, U.S. Park Police and other agencies. And it would be careful to steer clear of residential areas to avoid disturbing people who aren’t interested in joining the demonstration.

Chenelly said the hunt for a rally point is so important because, given the event’s draw for other veterans groups and motorcycle clubs, there will be riders regardless of AMVETS’ ability to find a site.

“We’re going to have a central staging area that’s safe and responsible and coordinated,” Chenelly said. “I think that the entire region needs that and certainly those who come to demonstrate need that.”

WTOP’s Valerie Bonk contributed to this report.

Matthew Delaney

Matt Delaney is a digital web writer/editor who joined WTOP in 2020.

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