For the last 27 years, the streets of D.C. have erupted with the roar of countless engines as the city is flooded with motorcyclists on Memorial Day weekend.
The hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists travel from across the country to participate in the annual Rolling Thunder run.
Walt Sides, a retired Marine first sergeant with 21 years in the Corps, helped build Rolling Thunder Washington D.C. Incorporated to spread awareness about Prisoner of War and Missing In Action issues in 1987.
His towering stature and face full of story-telling wrinkles covered by some grizzly facial hair make Sides appear intimidating, but his mischievous cackle and selfless actions prove otherwise.
“Most people don’t impress me but for some reason Walt stuck in my mind,” said David Sehmel, a Marine veteran from Sides’ platoon. “He’d give you confidence in yourself. There was nothing that he wouldn’t do for us.”
Today, Sides pours this leadership, determination and care into Rolling Thunder.
“Our deal is full accountability,” Sides said. “We’re looking for recovery and full accountability. We’ll probably never get there, but we’ll never quit trying.”
Sides’ said his passion is a fight to bring every man back.
Born in Mustang, Oklahoma in 1939, Sides joined the Marine Corps in 1956, where he believes he really grew up.
“I went in when I was 16 and retired when I was 37,” Sides said “It’s basically all I knew.”
Sides served his first tour in Vietnam as the platoon sergeant of 40 snipers from 1966 to 1967.
These men became the first U.S. Marine Scout Sniper Platoon to be trained in a combat zone. They were later referred to as ‘The Rogues,’ a nickname coined by the Marines under Sides’ charge.
“We were basically grunts with long guns,” Sides said “We were paid assassins and we did a good job of it … we killed a lot of people.”
Like many Vietnam veterans, Sides endured hellish conditions and atrocities of war during his two tours in the conflict. He received two Purple Hearts, three Navy Commodation Medals, a Bronze Star and a Vietnamese Cross in Gallantry with palm.
“I never shed a tear the 28 months I was in Vietnam,” Sides said. “I guess it really hit me around 1984. If someone said ‘Vietnam’ and I was in the room, I left,” Sides said.
After Vienam, Sides continued to serve in the Corps before retiring in 1977.
The greatest thing Sides said he took from his time in the Corps were the brothers he gained in Vietnam.
Sides and a dozen of his Marines remain close today and ride motorcycles together, he said.
“It’s just a deep feeling you get with these guys, I mean you bond for life,” Sehmel said. “You know more about them than you did your girlfriend back home.”
Taking what knowledge he learned from the Marine Corps, Sides became a co-founder of Rolling Thunder, the largest one-day event in the country.
Years after Sides retired, Ray Manzo, a Marine veteran, approached Sides and four other founders in front of the Vietnam War Memorial. He said he wanted to do a motorcycle run for the P.O.W. issue.
From this idea was born Rolling Thunder.
“Ray Manzo was a corporal in the Marine Corps and he wrote letters to different organizations asking people to join him in the P.O.W. issue and finding our troops,” Sides said. “The only ones who answered him were bikers.”
What started as only 25,000 to 30,000 motorcyclists in the first Rolling Thunder run has grown to 400,000 motorcycles and over a million participants in this year’s 27th annual Rolling Thunder run.
The organizers of Rolling Thunder don’t just spread awareness, they also incite action.
Since its establishment, seven bills have been passed through congress because of the organization, Sides said.
Now, Sides resides on a small ranch in Virginia with his wife Laura. They are still actively involved in Rolling Thunder and several other veterans’ events.
Even decades after his service in Vietnam, Sides still takes care of his men. He is determined to bring every service member home, or at the least make the world hear the cause through the thunderous roar of engines.
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