By R.E. Wagner
“Send them home! We will not forget!”
Just a handful of statements rising above the steady rumble of passing motorcycles during the demonstrations, community events and charity drives organized across the country by the non-profit organization known as Rolling Thunder.
In 1987, former United States Marine Corps Corporal Ray Manzo, U.S. Army Sergeant Major John Holland, Marine First Sergeant Walt Sides, and Sergeant Ted Sampley had lunch together at a diner in Somerville.
They were meeting to discuss an unsettling issue that, as servicemen, felt wasn’t being acknowledged enough in certain military circles. By the end of the meeting, they parted ways with a mission in mind:
To bring full accountability for the ‘Prisoners Of War’ and ‘Missing In Action (MIA)’ of all U.S. wars.
For Diane Malanga, the secretary of Rolling Thunder’s 3rd Chapter in New Jersey and an official member for almost a decade, Rolling Thunder’s goal hit close to a place close in her heart.
“They were deeply troubled knowing these men and women were forgotten,” explained Malanga, “thinking of their families who have not had a chance to have closure. My father served in World War II and Korea and my son just left for boot camp.”
Since World War II, more than 83,000 MIA cases have remained unresolved within military files. An MIA is a casualty classification assigned to combatants and prisoners of war (POW) who are reported missing during wartime. They may have been killed, wounded or captured. If deceased, neither their remains nor grave site have been positively identified.
For these four veterans, 83,000 unaccounted soldiers left overseas on distant battlefields was an outrage.
“They said we have to take a stand and do something to raise awareness,” Malanga continued.
On May 29, 1988, Corporal Manzo recruited 2,500 men and women from all over the nation to attend Rolling Thunder’s first public event held in Washington D.C. There, they assembled peacefully in the parking lot of the Pentagon and rode through the Capital on a predetermined route that led them to the Lincoln Memorial.
Since then, Rolling Thunder has grown into an established national organization. During their most recent rally in 2017, almost a million people attended to show their patriotism.
And with approximately 10,000 active members spread out across the country among 94 chapters in 33 states, Rolling Thunder has no plans on slowing down. The non-profit’s rosters are filled not only with veterans and active duty military personal, but their families, friends and those who seek to honor the soldiers who never made it home.
In New Jersey alone, there are four Rolling Thunder chapters consisting of hundreds of members. The Garden State is also home to Rolling Thunder’s National Headquarters located in Lebanon.
“I joined the chapter three in 2008,” Malanga said, before sharing her fond memory of her first event with Rolling Thunder at the Community Living Center in Lyons.
“There were snacks and karaoke, the veterans just loved it. The music, the visit, was so awesome for them.” Malanga reminisced, “One of the most rewarding parts of being a member is making the difference for a veteran. I was hooked from that moment.”
In addition to raising awareness of their mission statement to bring home missing soldiers, Rolling Thunder Chapters across the nation provide financial support to help veterans in need.
“At times our aging veterans struggle to pay bills,” Malanga explained. “We help with money to pay for heating and have also helped many Veterans with rent or mortgage payments. Last year, Chapter Three raised approx. $24,000 through various events, rides, personal donations and fundraising.”
Through charitable donations, as well as organizing community events for service men and women, Rolling Thunder Chapters are known to host events at hospitals and nursing homes like picnics and pizza parties for Veterans. An annual program known as Christmas Families is held where New Jersey Rolling Thunder Chapter members provide gift cards from Shoprite, Walmart and Toy- R-Us to help Veterans during the holidays.
Although primarily known for their roaring motorcades and biker persona, Rolling Thunder encourages anyone with a passion to pay respects to service men and women to volunteer their time or donating to the cause.
Interested in donating or volunteering? Contact a local Rolling Thunder Chapter to learn more, or write to the National Headquarters located in Lebanon at P.O. Box 216 Neshanic Station, N.J., 08853.