Under a newly-risen sun in Washington, D.C., a group of men and women are elbow deep in soapsuds.
They are members of Rolling Thunder
, a group dedicated to raising awareness about American prisoners of war and those still missing in action.
Armed with buckets and brushes, they wash the granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
, which bears the names of 58,286 U.S. service members who were killed or declared missing in action during the two-decade-long conflict, which ended in 1975.
For these men and women, most of them veterans, washing the wall is personal.
“Rolling Thunder has been allowed the privilege to honor our veterans past and current," said Forrest Lingenfelter, who belongs to the Virginia Chapter of the organization. "That these guys – and ladies – aren’t forgotten. They’re never forgotten. At least they never should be forgotten."
Al Mori spent three years in Vietnam and knows a lot of folks on the wall.
"We’re doing this for the visitor’s comfort to see the wall," he said, "but at the same time we’re kind of healing ourselves over what happened.”
“We come down the second Sunday of every month, April through October, to wash the wall where all our brothers are," said John Einbinder, who is also a member of the Virginia chapter. "I’ve got one friend on the wall over there. It’s just a privilege to come down here and keep it clean.”
Once a month, from April through October, Rolling Thunder volunteers gather to wash the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. (VOA/J. Taboh)
Many Rolling Thunder members are bikers. They ride to Washington from all over the United States for Memorial Day and other occasions. It's hard to miss the collective roar of their motorcycles as they perform demonstration runs near Washington's iconic monuments.
More than 30 years after its dedication, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial continues to draw millions of visitors every year, according to the National Park Service. Many come to find the names of loved ones, make rubbings of those names, and leave behind tributes to those they lost.
Jan Scruggs, a decorated Vietnam veteran, is founder and president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund
(VVMF), a nonprofit organization that helped build the memorial on the National Mall in the nation's capital.
“This memorial has helped to heal many individual wounds from the war, psychological wounds," he said. "By seeing the name and touching the name of one of your friends, many people do feel a sense of relief after many years. So washing the wall is kind of part of that, too.”
For many members of Rolling Thunder, the wall brings relief. But more importantly, says Forrest Lingenfelter, it's about remembrance.
“Each one of these guys had a family. And these gentlemen – and ladies – didn’t make it back for that family," he said. "They’re not forgotten. And this is one of the ways we ensure they’re not forgotten.”