UNION COUNTY, NJ — When the steady rumble of an expected 5,000 motorcycles — many of them outfitted with American flags and other patriotic symbols — envelopes Roselle’s Warinanco Park on Sunday, Sept. 20, it will mark the beginning of this year’s Ride for Freedom, a day-long ceremony that honors missing American soldiers going back to World War II.
Ride for Freedom, which is annually organized by the veterans’ group Rolling Thunder, reflects the goals of the organization, according to chapter president Lou Amoriello: Its main purpose is to raise awareness for veteran’s issues, including the long fight to find and return missing American remains.
“Basically our goal is to raise awareness about how these men are still missing, and put pressure on the government to keep searching for these men and bring them home. It’s a slow process, but they are bringing remains home all the way back from World War II,” said Amoriello. “I think most people are coming out because of the POWs and MIA issue, 99.9 percent of them do. Most people don’t realize that we still have so many Americans missing, from all wars. I believe the count’s somewhere around 88,000 to 90,000.”
It’s one of many events out there, added Amoriello, which tries to ensure that American veterans are treated with the respect they deserve. For many families of missing soldiers and prisoners of war, whether they fought recently or in wars fought generations ago, having proof about what happened can offer tremendous closure.
“It’s about finding these missing remains and getting them buried on American soil. The unfortunate thing is that the mothers and fathers, for a lot of these guys, are long since passed, so they went to their grave not knowing what happened to their son. But the remainder of the family, especially if they had kids, there’s some closure for the families,” said Lou. “We want to make sure our veterans are being treated right.”
Amoriello said that the thousands of participants in Ride for Freedom — among them veterans, current service members and family members of missing American soldiers — will form a unit that rides together. They’ll travel through three counties and straight down to the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which sits on the grounds of the PNC Bank Arts Center.
Along the way, the buzz of the motorcycles captures everyone’s ears. Including the residents who wave their flags, cheer and wave at the procession. The number of people participating in Ride for Freedom can be as high as 15,000, said Amoriello.
“The motorcycles seem to get people’s attention, the flags, the honor guard. At the end we do a short ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, and we keep it straight and to the point: We’re there to honor our missing men. It’s not a party, and it’s strictly a POWs and MIA issue,” said Amoriello. “We get a lot of residents who come out and wave the flag and support us, and that’s good to us. It’s the residents, the average American. The Fire Departments will set up on the overpasses of the Parkway and cheer us on. It really does the heart good to see that, to see that there’s still patriotism.”
Finding 90,000 missing American soldiers is a task that will take time, and “we’ll probably never see it in our lifetime,” said Amoriello. But when more veteran’s organizations raise awareness about the issue, along with other situations where veterans are being “shortchanged,” Amoriello said, that paves the way for improvement.
Rolling Thunder was started in the 1980’s, according to Amoriello, by Vietnam veterans who felt strongly about the issue of missing soldiers. Since then, it has exploded into nearly 100 different chapters across the country. For many people, added Amoriello, it’s a deeply personal issue, and one that’s not going anyway anytime soon.
“It’s bad enough they lose a son or a daughter, in any circumstance, but war is a little different. They go missing for 20, 30 or 50 years. World War II is 70 years ago. Not to know what what happened to their son, that’s got to take a toll on them,” said Amoriello. “It’s not as fast as we would like — nothing’s as fast as we would like, of course — but they are bringing remains back from World War II. They know we’re still here, and we’re not going anywhere.”