On a roll for veterans

On a roll for veterans
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

These guys are in it for the long haul.

Local chapters of the veterans-awareness group Rolling Thunder gathered at the Caesar’s Bay Shopping Center in Gravesend early on June 28 to hit the road for their 16th-annual Veterans Recognition Ride to the Eisenhower Park Veterans Memorial in Long Island, where they held a wreath-laying and flag folding ceremony before returning to Brooklyn for a post-ride party at the American Legion Post in Bay Ridge.

Rolling Thunder holds the event every year to help fund the group’s charitable efforts for local veterans in need.

Members stress that Rolling Thunder isn’t a biker gang — or even primarily a motorcycle club — but rather a registered non-profit, nationwide organization dedicated to educating the public about prisoners of war, soldiers missing in action, and collecting and providing aid for veterans of all American wars. They just happen to also be motorcycle enthusiasts — but membership in the organization is not limited to veterans or gearheads.

“Anyone who supports our cause is welcome to join our organization or participate in our events,” said Michael Palo, president of Rolling Thunder New York Chapter One. “This group is by veterans, for veterans, and for people who believe in helping them.”

Rolling Thunder Chapter One routinely organizes events to help vets in need. The members are regulars at the Veterans Administration’s hospital in neighboring Queens, where they bring food and entertainment for patients. They also host winter coat drives for homeless veterans. And they pass along the proceeds from events and donations they receive to other veteran’s organizations such as Fisher House, which provides lodging to veterans and military families receiving treatment at military medical centers around the country, and the Wounded Warrior Project, which supports injured veterans.

Every year since 1987, Rolling Thunder chapters nationwide gather to ride to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., an event that averages nearly half a million riders annually.

Palo, who served in Vietnam in 1968–69, said that many of his efforts with Rolling Thunder involve helping his fellow Vietnam vets — some of whom are dealing with more and more medical issues as they get older while suffering from debilitating conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder or exposure to Agent Orange. But his own traumatic experiences in war allow him to empathize with the problems — such as repeated tours — faced by soldiers from more recent conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well.

“There are guys who fell apart when they came back here from Vietnam because they were so disillusioned by the way the public was treating them,” said Palo. “We try to make them feel like they’re still loved. But I feel so bad for the kids serving today. Back in the day, most of us went for one tour and if we were lucky enough, we came home. These guys today, they have to keep going back and back.”

Reach reporter Eric Faynberg at (718) 260–2508 or by e-mail at efaynberg@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ericfaynberg.
Riding on the Parkway: Rolling Thunder members get a police escort as they ride down the Belt Parkway.
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto