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Veterans Group to Revive Rolling Thunder DC Motorcycle Ride

The 2020 ride will seek to highlight mental health issues among veterans

The annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride is set to be revived in 2020 by another organization that serves veterans. 

The group AMVETS (American Veterans) will host a motorcycle ride over Memorial Day weekend 2020 to honor military members who were missing in action or prisoners of war, they announced Thursday. 

After 32 years, Rolling Thunder, Inc. celebrated its final D.C. motorcycle rally in May, citing costs and logistical issues with federal officers. 

AMVETS' three-day event will be called Rolling to Remember. 

“We think [the name] strikes a good balance of something new, and also honoring what had been taking place here in Washington for three decades,” AMVETS National Executive Director and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Joe Chenelly said.

The name change stemmed in part from legal conflicts with Rolling Thunder Inc., Chenelly said. It also helps represent the expanded mission of the event.

Rolling Thunder, which began in 1988, aims to raise awareness of U.S. prisoners of war and service members missing in action. They will continue to hold smaller, regional rides in chapters across the country. 

In addition to honoring these military members, AMVETS said the 2020 ride would seek to highlight mental health issues among veterans. 

“We believe that mental health for our veterans is the most pressing issue to veterans today,” Chenelly said.

He described veterans suffering with mental illnesses as prisoners of “a different kind of war.” Encouraging a national conversation surrounding mental health care among veterans will save lives by encouraging “the average American to watch for warning signs, understand how to talk to someone in crisis and find out what they really need.”

An average of 17 veterans died by suicide every day in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, according to a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs

Rolling Thunder, Inc. previously said the cost of the event rose over the years, with the cost of last year’s event reaching $200,000.

Chenelly said he thought $200,000 was a modest price for a three-day event in D.C. He estimated that the 2020 event would cost AMVETS at least $400,000, citing the cost of first aid, overtime for law enforcement and permits. 

AMVETS is set to pay for the event through strategic alliances, corporate sponsors like Harley-Davidson and the National Institutes of Health and membership costs from its over 250,000 members nationwide. Chenelly said he thinks “corporate America” will be willing to pick up a good portion of the cost as well, which would allow the event to be sustainable in the long run.

The event is new to AMVETS, but  Chenelly said the topics have been a central focus of the organization for decades.

“We’re not looking to do this for one year,” Chenelly said. “We’re building our long-term plan here to make sure this event continues year after year.”

The three days of events are scheduled to begin May 22, and will culminate in the motorcycle ride on May 24. Last year, over 500,000 motorcyclists rode into D.C. from around the country. Chenelly said he anticipates up to a million total attendees at this year’s demonstration.

Chenelly said that while the motorcycle ride has occurred for more than three decades, many Americans who drive through D.C. still don't receive the important message it conveys. 

“Why would someone go through all of that, take a week off work, spend a lot of money and a lot of coordination?” he said. “We want to do a better job really conveying to the American public why these people care so much, why they feel like they should be doing this.”

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