As he has for the last 22 consecutive years, Francis “Mac” MacDonald is planning to make a noisy motorcycle ride around Washington, D.C. again this Memorial Day weekend, showing off his military patches and hoping to remind passer-bys who the weekend is meant to honor.
But on this year’s ride, he’ll have a few hundred thousand fewer friends than he usually brings.
“It’s still something that has to be done,” said McDonald, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant who served as president of the Virginia Rolling Thunder chapter during the event’s final ride last year. “If it’s just me by myself this time, that’s fine. If a few more people join me, it’s even better.”
In past years, finding extra riding partners hasn’t been a problem. Since the Rolling Thunder event was founded in 1988, the ride swelled from a few thousand participants to nearly 1 million cyclists and spectators last year, a crowd whose expense and logistics forced the end of the tradition last spring.
During the final ride last May, President Donald Trump vowed that the tradition would return this year. Officials from AMVETS spent the last nine months restructuring the event into the “Rolling to Remember” ride, designed not only to highlight Americans still missing in action but also the problem of veterans suicides.
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this spring, those plans were scuttled. A large-scale rally around the nation’s most prominent military monuments before Memorial Day was cancelled for the second time in 12 months.
AMVETS leaders have moved the event online, with a two-hour presentation planned for Saturday morning and a partnership with the navigation app Rever to allow participants to record their own 22-mile tribute rides throughout the weekend.
The group’s live streams will be simulcast on corporate partner sites like Harley Davidson, Papa Johns and USAA.
And the White House is expected to welcome a small group of riders on Friday morning to kick off the Memorial Day weekend, with remarks from the president about the importance of the holiday.
“We’re really hopeful we can still generate a strong conversation about those POW/MIA missions, and veterans suicide,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director for AMVETS. “We’re using technology to bring the demonstration into people’s homes this year.”
But several hundred cyclists — including MacDonald — are still expected to hit the streets of the nation’s capital this Saturday. Chenelly said his group has been actively discouraging any large meet-ups, but are hosting some smaller expeditions across the city to keep the event spirit alive.
MacDonald said he usually spends more than 12 hours at the massive rally, driving from site to site and bonding with fellow veterans. This year, his round trip from home is likely to take only a few hours, but he still believes it's an important journey.
“A lot of folks are still trying to pull some plans together, to do something to mark the weekend,” he said.
MacDonald said his plans include rolling along the National Mall and making a stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“If the park police aren’t letting people in there, then I’ll just drive a little further,” he said. “I’m not looking to cause problems.
“But I will be driving slowly down the main streets, obeying all the appropriate traffic laws, so people can see me.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.