WASHINGTON — Rolling Thunder’s annual roaring parade through the streets of the nation’s capital is coming to an end.
Group organizers said this year’s planned motorcycle ride in May, expected to draw more than 1 million riders and spectators to the National Mall, will be the last time the large-scale demonstration is held, citing cost concerns.
The event has become a fixture of Memorial Day commemorations in Washington, D.C. for more than 30 years, drawing attention to military members still missing in action. But the noisy, attention-getting demonstration also has become a victim of its own success.
Pete Zaleski, vice president of Rolling Thunder Inc., said costs for security and clean-up of the event have swelled to more than $200,000, an expense the group cannot continue to sustain.
“It really has exploded to beyond what we can support,” he told Military Times. “These costs didn’t exist 10 years ago.”
Zaleski said the size of the crowd both participating and watching have prompted additional security concerns at the Pentagon, where the annual ride typically starts. That has prompted several new costs and conflicts with local officials.
“We still have 90 chapters in 33 states, and we’re going to help them coordinate their own rides on a smaller scale,” Zaleski said. “The group is not going under, and our message is not going away. We’re just not going to be doing it in Washington anymore.”
Still, the loss of one of the most public and recognizable national Memorial Day commemorations drew disappointment from members of the veterans community.
“These demonstrations and Rolling Thunder's unbelievable work over the past 32-plus years has made a tremendous impact, keeping the search going for our missing and prisoners of war,” said Joe Chennelly, national executive director of AMVETS. “We as an organization are grateful.”
Chennelly called the group’s work “too important to our veterans, and really to all Americans, to simply let it stop.” His organization is looking at ways to support the Rolling Thunder chapters moving forward.
Zaleski said he hopes the announcement of the end of the tradition will bring even more attention to the event’s message.
“When word gets out that this is the last one, it’s going to draw even more people,” he said. “The next ride ought to be huge.”
The final ride is scheduled for May 26, 2019. More information is available on the Rolling Thunder web site.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.