Retired naval Cmdr. Kirk Lippold was given a free pass to run red lights Sunday in Washington, as he helped lead thousands of motorcyclists down Constitution Avenue as part of the 31st annual Rolling Thunder event.

It’s his 18th year riding with the organization, having bought his bike only weeks before al Qaeda terrorists attacked his ship, the U.S.S. Cole, on Oct. 12, 2000.

“Life changed for me forever,” Cmdr. Lippold told Tthe Washington Times.

Seventeen sailors were killed and 39 were wounded in a suicide bombing that ripped a gaping hole in the side of the warship, which would have sunk it if not for Cmdr. Lippold’s leadership and the dedication of the soldiers on board.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the commander worried that riding a brand new Harley Davidson would send the wrong message to the public.

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“I really wrestled with it because I didn’t want to be seen as celebrating what had happened,” he said. “But I also realized that God has given me a life to still lead, and in many ways, if you’re going to get a motorcycle you’ve got use it in ways that are not only fulfilling to you, but can contribute back.”

Cmdr. Lippold has ridden in Rolling Thunder’s “Ride for Freedom” every year since.

It celebrates muscle bikes, America and its military, as well as the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of service men and women, many of those killed in action and remain in graves all over the world.

“What draws me to Rolling Thunder is that it’s an opportunity to give back to a nation that I served and a nation that I still care for so much, for a mission that’s still out there,” Cmdr. Lippold said.

An estimated 800,000 people are believed to attend the annual demonstration, with tens of thousands of motorcyclists riding from the Pentagon, around the National Mall and to the Lincoln Memorial. The overpowering revving of the engines is matched only by the cheers and whoops of thousands of spectators lining the streets.

Rolling Thunder national Chairman Ted Zabohonski said its the dedication of the members that keeps him involved year after year.

“It’s a demonstration of patriotism and you find yourself among like minded people and it does serve the good of the veterans,” he said.

Rolling Thunder is not a motorcycle club and is open to veterans and non-veterans alike who want to help in charitable and advocacy issues for veteran rights. Mr. Zabohonski recounted one year in which Girl Scout troops showed up to help members lay wreaths on the headstones of service officers for Christmas.

“It’s a family friendly organization,” he said.

Founded in 1987 by Vietnam veterans Ray Manzo and Artie Muller, the organization has a mission to advocate, raise awareness and fundraise for issues and causes related to veteran care.

“We’re here because we believe in the United States of America and what it stands for: Our troops, our veterans and the American public,” Mr. Muller told The Times.

Despite controversy surrounding leadership at the Department of Veteran Affairs, Mr. Muller said he stands behind President Trump and has faith in the decisions he’s made.

“I feel he’s doing a good job so far,” he said.

In a surprise announcement on May 18, the president nominated acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to take over the department officially, capping off almost two months of turmoil since the firing of former secretary David Shulkin at the end of March. Mr. Trump’s first pick, White House physician Ronny Jackson, withdrew his nomination over allegations of improper work behavior.

“He’s a businessman, not a politician,” Mr. Muller said of his support for Mr. Trump. “They can’t buy him, that’s why they don’t like him.”

© Copyright (c) 2018 News World Communications, Inc.

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