Sporting black sleeveless leather vests, blue jeans and T-shirts with any combination of patriotic slogans, bald eagles, flames or “Old Glory” itself, the members of Rolling Thunder look the part of a typical motorcycle club.
As it rumbles down the street, the group, comprised mostly of military veterans, isn’t just your average biker gang hellbent for leather and full of wanton bravado. These men and women are working to better their communities and provide support for the individuals who served in America’s armed forces.
Last month, the national chapter of Rolling Thunder based out of Manville donated 2,100 pounds of food to the Somerset County Food Bank in Bound Brook.
Donations were collected with assistance from the American Legion Post 5 in Rahway, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2290 in Manville, Lake Island Rifle and Pistol in Carteret, as well as a monetary donation from the Wegmans supermarket in Bridgewater.
“There are things going on all the time,” Andrew Kerr, who served in the Navy from 1971-1975 and is currently an alternate member of the Rolling Thunder National, Inc. Board of Directors, said. “We want to help as many people as we can.”
The Manville chapter’s food drive takes place twice a year and comes at a particularly difficult time for the county food bank, since people are less likely to donate outside of the holiday season.
Rolling Thunder, Inc., is a non-profit organization that works to both educate the public about the plight of the American prisoners of war that were left behind in past wars and to ensure that future veterans do not become “Prisoners of War-Missing in Action.” There are many chapters throughout the country.
The organization can trace its beginnings back to the late ’80s, when Vietnam veterans Artie Muller and Ray Manzo organized a gathering of like-minded veterans from across the country to converge on Washington D.C. during the 1988 Memorial Day weekend. Once at the capital, the organization estimates there were approximately 2,500 motorcycles in the city, with their riders demanding “from our leaders a full accounting of all POW/MIA’s.”
The yearly “Ride for Freedom” gathering has continued since then, with Kerr estimating that recent gatherings in Washington have brought upward of 900,000 of supporters to the capital.
And even though a large portion of that group ride is on motorcycles, Kerr said membership doesn’t require that specific mode of transportation, nor does it require that a prospective member previously serve in the military.
“A lot of our demonstrations are on motorcycles, but we’re not a motorcycle club. I’d say about half of our people don’t ride,” Kerr said. “It’s mostly bikes, but we do have vehicles. Some of our folks can’t ride or don’t ride – some of the older fellas can’t ride anymore.”
The national chapter, which meets at the Manville VFW on the third Sunday of each month, has more than 400 members, with some going as far back as World War II and the Korean War.
The philanthropic arm of Rolling Thunder, Inc., known as Rolling Thunder Charities, is a 501c3 non-profit that serves as a way for the organization to fill in the gaps of support for veterans.
From visiting the Lyons Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System to helping veterans dealing with financial trouble, Kerr said Rolling Thunder works to ensure that the country’s veterans are not forgotten.
“A lot of fellas fall on hard times. Maybe they can’t pay a mortgage or the electric bill or whatever, and we’ll help them out too,” Kerr said. “All we require is the form that says they were enlisted in the service, as well as a copy of the bill they need help with.”
Kerr said the organization’s efforts largely came about as a reaction to how his fellow servicemen were treated following the end of the Vietnam War.
“When most of us came home, we weren’t the most popular people,” Kerr said. “That’s changed, but being that we had such a bad time when we came home, we don’t want that to happen again. Putting the veterans in a different light helps the guys returning and rotating back into civilian life…we try to help them all.”
With thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerr said Rolling Thunder has already seen an influx of new members, as well as veterans in need.
Despite what they may have endured in the Middle East, Kerr said he’s already seen the character of this latest batch of veterans.
“[Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’] spirit is really good. They just want to help and do what they can,” Kerr said. “They don’t really talk too much about themselves…and they want to help the other people as well as they can.”
Anyone looking to contribute to Rolling Thunder can send a check made out to Rolling Thunder Charities, Inc. to P.O. Box 327, Neshanic Station, NJ, 08853. All collected proceeds go to helping assist veterans. Food donations can be made at the Manville VFW on the third Sunday in March or August.