The drenching downpour Tuesday in Chattanooga was accompanied by a roaring thunder -- the rumble of about 650 motorcycles pulling into the city.
Bikes of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds -- the riders equally so -- packed Thunder Creek Harley-Davidson off Lee Highway around 7:30 Tuesday evening.
But Chattanooga is far from their last stop. These riders are part of Run for the Wall, an event that takes place every year around Memorial Day where riders across the country join to ride to Washington, D.C., to honor veterans, living and deceased, particularly prisoners of war and those missing in action.
"It's an emotional roller coaster," said Laurie Clay, the southern route coordinator, who has led the bikers in their cross-country crusade since its starting point last week in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. "People change that travel with us. There's a lot of healing."
A northern route across the U.S. also was available, and both sets of riders will meet up at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
Chattanooga was an ideal pit stop because it is home to Tennessee's second chapter of Rolling Thunder, an organization that shares Run with the Wall's message in bringing awareness to war veterans who may not have a voice.
This is the 25th year that Run for the Wall, which started in 1989 when four Vietnam veterans wanted to provide a voice for POWs as well as MIA soldiers that were left unaccounted for, said Geri Tramel, president of Tennessee's second chapter of Rolling Thunder.
Eventually, word of mouth led to about 2,500 participants in the first Run for the Wall, Tramel said.
"Freedom isn't free," said Tramel, who lost her husband in the Vietnam War and is now a member of the Gold Star Wives. "Some people paid the ultimate price."
About 90,000 POW/MIA soldiers of all U.S. wars are unaccounted for, Tramel said.
Motorcycles clogged Lee Highway to pull into Thunder Creek Harley-Davidson. As they pulled in, members of the United Cherokee Ani-Yun-Wiya Nation and the local Rolling Thunder saluted them with American and POW-MIA flags.
After they parked their motorcycles, riders enjoyed free food donated to Rolling Thunder and music by the Star Medicine Singers.
"This really becomes a family," Clay said.
The "family" that has stayed with the ride since it started in California has experienced everything from boiling 114 degree weather to Wednesday's rain, which was the first Clay has seen in her ride, she said.
Richard O'Mara drove from his home in Pacific Grove, Calif., to the run's starting point in Rancho Cucamonga. The Vietnam veteran wanted to experience the ride so bad, that he had both of his knees replaced so he could ride this year.
And his experience hasn't let him down, he said.
"My muscles still ache," he said. "I've seen very little of the country, I've just been watching the bike in front of me. But I love it. This has been great. I've met some of the best people all the way from Texas to here."
Each stop picks up new riders who weren't able to join the ride before. Donna Kennedy of Dublin, Ga., and her friend Mike Wilkerson of Kentucky signed up and will join the rest of the riders on their way to Washington, D.C., after a brief wreath-laying ceremony at the Confederate cemetery this morning.
"I'm riding in memory of my uncle, who died in World War II," Kennedy said. "I still care about him, and this is very rewarding."
Contact staff writer Adam Poulisse at 423-757-6592 or email@example.com.
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