As Silence Looms For Rolling Thunder, A Vet Explains What It's Meant To Him

May 27, 2019
Originally published on May 27, 2019 7:00 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This weekend in Washington, D.C., the air was full of this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE ENGINE REVVING)

KELLY: That would be motorcycles - a lot of them. It was the 32nd annual Rolling Thunder ride for Freedom. Hundreds of thousands of riders honor military members captured, missing or killed in combat. This year may have been the last Rolling Thunder ride. Organizers say the event has gotten too expensive and too big.

Marine veteran Staff Sergeant Tim Chambers was there for it. He comes every year. He stands for hours, holding a salute as fellow vets ride by. Yesterday he did it for his 18th time as temperatures soared and D.C.'s infamous summer humidity set in. I spoke with Chambers today, and he told me about the first time he held the salute back in 2002. He was on the National Mall by the Korean War Memorial when he saw a number of vets on bikes passing by.

TIM CHAMBERS: I thought, how can I thank them? So I just jumped off the curb and popped up a salute. And I saw tears rolling by on their faces. And that's what kept me driving throughout that salute until the last bike rolled around me. And then both sides of the street just rushed me and said thank you, Marine.

KELLY: So tell me about yesterday. Did you pick a certain place where you're going to be?

CHAMBERS: Yeah, it's become my memorial post. It's at 23rd and Constitution, right behind the Lincoln Monument.

KELLY: And you're full uniform.

CHAMBERS: Yeah.

KELLY: What's going through your head as you stand there?

CHAMBERS: I'm hoping I don't let anyone down. I didn't go to war, but I still care so much for those that did and the families left behind. So there's a lot riding on my shoulders.

KELLY: Not letting anybody down - what do you mean? just being able to hold the salute for so long.

CHAMBERS: Yeah, maintain my position and in life. You know, it's much more than one day out of the year thing. The families that lost their loved ones, they're like, wow, my son wanted to be that. And it kind of honors them, in essence, because it doesn't let the sacrifice go in vain.

KELLY: This seems to resonate with Korean vets, who are getting older now, vets from Vietnam, same thing - also Iraq, Afghanistan. I mean, it's all generations.

CHAMBERS: Yes, and it's very humbling. I was in a diner in Lexington, Ky. And this guy saw a shirt I had with my salute on the back that said, thank you, veterans in all the wars. And he goes, I know that Marine. And I'm like, well, I'm that Marine. He started to cry. He said, please keep doing it. He had to give up his motorcycle when he came home from war. And now he bounces and tries to go to school and is trying to find his way.

But somehow that resonates with him. And I never thought that would come from a combat veteran - a young buck, especially, that did get welcomed home. So that was probably the most humbling thing that really validated my existence of doing it, was from one of my own that did a lot more than me.

KELLY: That the respect is mutual.

CHAMBERS: Yes, that I was accepted. That meant the world to me.

KELLY: So there's the possibility that this weekend's was the last national Rolling Thunder ride on the National Mall. How do you feel about that?

CHAMBERS: I just go day by day. And, you know, things change, things happen, and we have to adapt.

KELLY: And I gather some plans to do this locally in different cities, maybe in different forms.

CHAMBERS: Oh, yes, they're going to do it, like, regional. You know, so that'll be able to reach more people throughout the country, which is good because not everyone can make it to D.C. And it doesn't start in D.C. It starts in every community where the blood flowed for our freedoms.

KELLY: Well, Tim Chambers, thank you for stopping by and sharing a little bit of your story with us. Thank you.

CHAMBERS: My pleasure.

KELLY: That's Marine Corps veteran Tim Chambers, also known as the Saluting Marine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.