Local activists honor POW/MIAs

The Jamaica Plain-based chapter of Rolling Thunder, a national nonprofit focused on supporting military veterans and retrieving prisoners of war (POW) and servicepeople missing in action (MIA), is bringing the New England Patriots a new accolade: the first team in the NFL to honor POW/MIAs in their home stadium with a chair.

A POW/MIA memorial chair was expected to be unveiled at Gillette Stadium today, a move suggested by Rolling Thunder’s local chapter. These chairs are usually painted black and kept empty.

“There’s a group of us riding up, right into the stadium, to have a dedication ceremony,” Massachusetts Chapter President and JP resident Joe D’Entremont told the Gazette earlier this week.

Recently, at Rolling Thunder’s request, minor league baseball team Lowell Spinners added a POW/MIA chair—a highly visible chair that has been painted black and will be kept empty—to their home field.

The Patriots decided to follow suit.

“We have always felt a special connection with our military and saw this seat dedication as a unique way to recognize and honor those soldiers who served, but never returned home,” said Robert Kraft, chairman and CEO of The Kraft Group, the owners of Gillette Stadium. “We hope the seat will serve as a constant reminder for fans attending games at Gillette Stadium that whomever we’re rooting for, we are all Patriots.”

D’Entremont rides a customized Harley, painted in tribute to POW/MIAs, including 30 from Massachusetts. still not accounted for. He has never served in the military, but he views his work with Rolling Thunder as a way to serve now.

“I grew up in the Vietnam era, hearing death counts on the radio. As I grew up, I found out that there were thousands of soldiers still missing. Their families never knew where they were, whether they were alive,” he said. “If you’ve got a POW/MIA in your family, you never know. I can’t imagine going decades without knowing.”

Rolling Thunder is nationally best known for the yearly Memorial Day weekend motorcycle rally that brings almost a million riders to Washington, D.C. The local Rolling Thunder chapter also participates in local rides to promote awareness of POW/MIAs as well as donating POW/MIA flags to high-visibility sites.

JP’s firehouse and post office both fly POW/MIA flags—as do every other firehouse and post office in the city, along with the TD Garden, Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium—thanks to the local Rolling Thunder chapter. All donations—the group’s sole source of income—to go buying flags or providing military families with support, D’Entremont said.

The group’s association with Harley-Davidson motorcycles started not long after the Vietnam War, D’Entremont said.

“After Vietnam, a lot of returning soldiers bought Harleys and they just rode,” D’Entremont said. “It was a way to forget.”

So when Rolling Thunder founders Artie Muller and Ray Manzo decided to demonstrate in support of POW/MIAs in Washington, D.C. in 1988, they decided to ride into town, families, friends, and fellow veterans—on about 2,500 motorcycles—in tow. They named their ride Rolling Thunder, after a 1965 bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

Servicemembers are still taken prisoner today. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and remains in captivity.

“Our number one mission is to make the public aware,” D’Entremont said. “See and remember. That’s what we strive for.”

Rolling Thunder’s only Massachusetts Chapter’s website is available at rollingthunderma1.org. New members are welcome, no military service or motorcycle required.

State General Superintendent of Cemeteries Tom Sullivan (right) adds a donated POW/MIA flag, courtesy of Rolling Thunder, to the pole at Mount Hope Cemetery in Roslindale during POW/MIA day. (Courtesy Photo)

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