ROCKINGHAM — For more than 30 years, motorcycle riders from across the nation have descended on the nation’s capital on Memorial Day weekend for Rolling Thunder to bring awareness of those in the military who were declared prisoners of war or missing in action.
One Richmond County veteran, teacher and photographer has participated in the event twice, including this past weekend.
Jerry Andrews, who teaches high school history in Marlboro County, South Carolina, rode up to D.C. to join the convoy with a group of friends from Charlotte: Russell Thompson, Caroline Voelkers and Jim Rybak.
BORN TO RIDE
Andrews’ said his brother, Jimmy, got him interested in motorcycles at a young age.
“I’ve been riding a motorcycle since I was about 6 years old,” he said. “I’ve been riding off and on ever since then.”
He’s had about 10 motorcycles in his life and is now on his second Harley-Davidson — a 2018 Road Glide Special.
Many participants, like Andrews and Thompson, are veterans.
Andrews joined the Army in 1985 and got out in ‘89, just before the beginning of Operation Desert Storm.
“I think of my service as second-tier,” he said. “There’s guys who have gotten shot at. I think they’re heroes to me … I was there, I was in, but nobody ever shot at me.”
Andrews said he spent his tour stationed in Germany with the 8th Infantry Division.
Thompson, who initially served from ‘87 to ‘90, was also discharged just before the Gulf War, but was recalled. Fortunately, he said, he wasn’t stationed overseas.
Unlike Andrews, Thompson didn’t get his first motorcycle until a year ago.
“I was taken for a ride on one when I was 8 years old and I’ve wanted one ever since,” he said. “I finally got the opportunity to purchase one … and have been loving it ever since.”
Andrews and Thompson met several years ago participating in Patriot Guard Riders, an organization formed in 2005 to, according to its website, shield families of fallen service members during funeral services from protestors, like those from Westboro Baptist Church.
The group also serves as the “family” for veterans who die with no relatives.
Thompson joined before he had a motorcycle.
He said he’s acted as a pallbearer five times because there were no family members available.
Last summer, Andrews said they escorted the body of a homeless veteran in Union County from the funeral home in Monroe to the cemetery in Salisbury.
“Patriot Guard was his family,” Andrews said, adding that the funeral home helped secure an honor guard unit from Fort Bragg to send him off with military honors. “That was one of the more special moments.”
He has been with Patriot Guard for two years and said it’s hard, being a teacher, to participate in some events, but he tries to squeeze in as many as he can on the weekends.
With his lifelong interest in motorcycles, Andrews read Easy Rider and other biker magazines as a kid and was aware of Rolling Thunder.
“Once I got out of the military, it just seemed like a natural fit,” he said. “The opportunity came up to go the first time and it’s addicting, to go and be part of that crowd.”
Andrews said the love of motorcycles, sense of patriotism and love of history “bonds everybody together.”
“Memorial Day has always been special to me,” he said. “I teach history so I always try to encourage my students to know, understand and appreciate how they obtained these freedoms that we talk about … it was the soldiers who fought and died for us to have those rights given to us in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
Andrews first participated in Rolling Thunder in 2006, the 22nd year of the event, which “was nowhere near as big as it was this past Sunday.”
“It was phenomenal,” he said, adding that participation numbers in the 2019 ride reportedly topped 1 million.
“It was a long day … hot … many, many more motorcycles than I think they had any idea was going to come this year,” Thompson said. “It was, for me, definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The riders use the Pentagon parking lot as a staging area and ride around the major monuments in the city, Andrews said, including the Lincoln and Vietnam memorials.
With that many riders, plus other visitors, Andrews said traffic moved slow.
“It was a lot like being in the military … a lot of hurry up and wait,” he said.
Andrews added that he loves airplanes and aviation photography, so he was excited to capture images of the B-52 that flew over at the start of the ride.
“We rode across the Key Bridge and there’s people three or four rows deep waving flags … very patriotic,” he said. “Going by all those historical monuments was pretty cool.”
While Andrews was a veteran of the ride, of sorts, it was Thompson’s first time.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Riding my bike … tearing up riding through the downtown, seeing all the people on the side of the street — not even sure where they came from, but they’re up on the side of the highway waving flags and cheering on the bikes as they went by. It was an incredible experience.”
But for Andrews and Thompson, the highlight of the trip was visiting the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, on the way up.
“It is a jewel, it is a treasure, it is an amazing monument,” Andrews said. “It’s one of the most beautiful monuments I’ve ever seen in my life. It would compete with anything in Washington D.C.”
Bedford, which is about the same size as Hamlet, lost 20 of its sons on the beaches of Normandy — the highest number of casualties per capita of any U.S. community, according to the monument’s website.
“It comes in handy when you bring a high school teacher with you,” Thompson said about the visit.
Andrews was present at the 2001 dedication tries to stop by every time he’s up that way, especially when he’s traveling with others.
“Nobody knows about it,” he said. “It’s, sadly, an unknown place for such a (memorial to those) that have paid a very high price.”