A Ride for Freedom


 They rode for those who can’t. It was hard to ignore the purr of as many as 100 motorcycle engines on Sunday, May 24, the day before Memorial Day, as they made their way through Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn to send an important message. Rolling Thunder Chapter 6 New York’s Ride for Freedom ensured that those who never made it home while fighting for this country, will never be forgotten.

On Sunday morning, this Rockaway Times reporter hopped on the back of Belle Harbor resident, Chris Gallagher’s Can-Am Spyder, bearing small American and POW-MIA flags, to join the roughly 100 other riders of Rolling Thunder Chapter 6 NY (RT6NY) at their meeting point in Garden City. With coronavirus in mind, many riders wore face coverings and maintained social distancing, which was easy to do as the riders typically move in a staggered formation due to safety reasons. The clubs who participated came from all over, from civil servants to veterans, with the LeatherNecks MC, Teamsters Iron Horsemen, Vigilance LEMC, the American Legion to independent riders, all there for one cause of making sure Prisoners of War and Missing in Action military members, are never forgotten. “Even though we don’t know everyone, we’re all brothers and sisters. We’re all here for the same thing,” Gallagher explained.

As a national organization, Rolling Thunder rode to Washington, D.C. for the 32nd time last year with a similar mission. However, 2019 would be their last. With nearly one million riders, the event had grown bigger and required more costs than it did when 2,500 riders went to the capitol for Rolling Thunder’s first ride in 1988. Instead, local chapters are now continuing the mission on a smaller scale, to make the effort more widespread. For the Massapequa-based RT6NY, that meant spreading the message to local congressional representatives in Long Island and Queens. With 10 planned stops, 125 miles and more than three hours’ worth of travel time between the stops, RT6NY made sure their message was heard.

Rolling Thunder Chapter 6 NY president Bill Byrne, who spoke of the ride’s mission at many of the stops, explained the reason behind the ride. “We’re riding for the POWs and MIAs that were left behind in all wars that our country has had,” Byrne said. “Eighty-two thousand men never came home that were sent overseas. We want to make our politicians aware that we are not happy that these men were left overseas, and their families have no closure. We’re here to hold the government accountable for that, and that if it ever happens in the future, that our men and women are sent overseas, that they’re not left behind again.”

Patriot Guard rider, Wayne Cohen, who organized and led the Long Island ride, explained further, saying, “We’re riding to make sure that our representatives try to push through a bill that remembers that we’ve still got soldiers, airmen, sailors, etc., missing in action,” Cohen said.

One such representative who heard their pleas was Long Island Rep. Kathleen Rice. Rice, who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee for Congress, greeted the riders outside of her office and enthusiastically shared her support of the mission. “The work that you do on behalf of our American heroes that go and fight wars for us, so we can enjoy all the freedoms that make this country to great, is amazing,” she said. “The number one job we have as a country, is that if we cannot honor our heroes, the brave men and women who wear the uniform of this country and fight for our freedoms, then we have failed, and I promise I will do everything that I can. I’ve spent a lot of my time working and advocating for our veterans, especially during this pandemic, they have been hit particularly hard,” she said.

While RT6NY ma­de their message loud and clear at the offices of elected officials, one of the most poignant parts of the mission were the stops made at local national cemeteries, where thousands of military members are buried. At Long Island National Cemetery, Byrne gave a speech, reminding all in attendance why they were there on a holiday weekend. “Memorial Day is a day of reflection, a time to remember those men and women who helped deliver our freedoms, but who never got the chance to step off the battlefield. Memorial Day is about the selfless sacrifice of American heroes who raised their right hands to say, it is I who will defend America, and if needed, lay down my life for my country. That debt has been paid time and again in the name of all Americans so that we may continue to enjoy life’s most treasured moments each and every day,” Byrne said before holding a moment of silence to remember those who paid that debt.

The veterans among the riders were then asked to step forward, before the thousands of tombstones of military members, for a symbolic mission. Normally before Memorial Day, volunteers from Boy Scouts and other groups are tasked with placing American flags before each tombstone at national cemeteries across the country. Due to coronavirus, volunteers were asked not to do so this year. Rolling Thunder would not let that be. In a symbolic effort, the veterans of the group placed one flag before the tombstone of a Spanish-American War veteran, and saluted the gravesite, as a way to honor all of those buried there, and all who gave the supreme sacrifice for this country.

The riders continued with a similar effort at Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, but after seven hours of riding along, this RT reporter and her chauffer had called it a day. Over lunch, Gallagher, a motorcycle rider for 47 years, who has ridden with Rolling Thunder for the past eight years, explained why he joined Sunday’s Ride for Freedom. “I have family that are veterans. I do whatever I can for the vets because every single one of my family members came home safe and sound,” he said, before pointing to a patch he wears for a veteran who didn’t, Cpl. Ian Muller, a U.S. Marine killed in a fire fight in Afghanistan in 2011, who served with Gallagher’s nephew. “If you don’t remember the past, it will be forgotten,” Gallagher said.

By Katie McFadden