They may no longer be in uniform, but nearly all of them are sporting the same thing — leather vests covered with multicolored military patches.
Who are they? Tens of thousands of US veterans, many of whom fought in Vietnam, and supporters who take part in Rolling Thunder, an annual motorcycle rally in the nation’s capital to remember the fallen and prisoners of war.
Each year, the veterans ride through the streets of Washington, past the majestic monuments along the national Mall and the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill to ask the government to keep working to find those left behind.
“This is the heart of America. That’s what we’re all about,” said Bill Driscoll, sporting the ubiquitous leather vest and many tattoos as he watched bikers cruise by under a blistering sun that reflected off their motorcycles.
“They’re riding from California, from Wisconsin, from all over the States,” he said. “It’s a tribute to all veterans,” added the 58-year-old Driscoll.
“I didn’t go to ‘Nam. A bunch of my buddies were there. Lots of them passed away.”
Rolling Thunder was first held in 1988 when a group of bikers, all of them Vietnam veterans, decided to ride in Washington every year on or about the Memorial Day holiday to demand the return of remains of POWs and those missing in action (MIAs).
The name refers to Operation Rolling Thunder, an aerial bombardment campaign launched against North Vietnam by then US president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.
There are an estimated 1,500 POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam war whose remains were never recovered.
Over time, the Rolling Thunder parade has become a boisterous display of unabashed patriotism, and a tribute to veterans of all foreign wars.
Along Constitution Avenue, one of the US capital’s main thoroughfares, bikers ride their motorcycles, some with sidecars and almost all Harley-Davidsons, for hours.
Many of them fly the red, white and blue the American flag, or the black POW/MIA banner that reads: “You are not forgotten.” Some carry backpacks, others have coolers. One even had a trailer hitched to his ride.
With a cigar in his mouth, a beret on his head, two diamond-like studs in his left ear, and sporting a camouflage jacket adorned with medals and badges, Elton Ensor says he must be “probably one of the oldest to be here today.”
The 87-year-old Ensor — who fought on the beaches of Normandy during World War II, in the Korean war and in Vietnam — says he has no illusions about the realistic prospects for seeing the remains of his comrades in arms returned.
“They’re doing their best, I guess,” Ensor said of the administration of President Barack Obama.
Near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, where the names of 58,000 soldiers are engraved in the black granite, Art Leicher awaits on his bike for his chance to take to the streets.
Leicher wants to honor his fallen comrades from Vietnam. But he is especially worried about his son, a veteran of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There’s no jobs for these guys when they come back,” he says.