WASHINGTON – Forty-five years after Vietnam, Mike Rendine still remembers the screams.
Those memories of his time as a medevac pilot during the Vietnam War are what bring the Fountain Hills resident back to Washington every Memorial Day weekend to honor the fallen and forgotten as part of the Rolling Thunder Run, which bills itself as one of the nation’s largest motorcycle rallies.
“I never forget the screams,” Rendine said, standing between the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Saturday in a leather jacket adorned with pins from all the years he’s been coming to the rally.
He was one of thousands similarly attired bikers in Washington for the weekend, swapping memories, showing off their motorcycles, parading through town and honoring veterans who gave their lives. Neither the organizers nor the National Park Service could provide an official estimate of attendance at this year’s event.
Rolling Thunder began in 1988 as a way to commemorate fallen soldiers from the Vietnam War, as well as prisoners of war and those missing in action. Rendine started coming in 1995.
The retired Air Force colonel calls the Vietnam memorial the “wailing wall of America.” He said that coming back year after year is painful, but he does so out of respect for the fallen – and with some guilt.
“If they didn’t make it, we didn’t do enough,” Rendine said of those whose names are carved on the wall.
Born in New Jersey, Rendine graduated from high school in 1963 and got a draft deferment when he enrolled in Rutgers University. But while in college, he signed up for Air Force ROTC.
From 1967-68, he flew a C-130 cargo plane that airlifted wounded soldiers who had been treated at field hospitals and took them to permanent medical facilities for further treatment.
Now that he’s older, Rendine has his Harley-Davidson Anniversary Road King Screaming Eagle motorcycle shipped to Washington and he flies in, riding the bike back to Arizona after the weekend’s events.
“A lot of military ride motorcycles because we work things out when we ride,” Rendine said. “We have a little more of a death wish.”
Rendine is now the founder and vice president of Assured Space Access Technologies Inc., a missile defense company based in Fountain Hills that helps launch satellites for missile defense for the U.S. and other governments. We “get to play with all the good toys,” he said of the job.
The company also started a trust, called Freedom’s Price, to help disabled veterans get jobs in the defense industry. The trust helps veterans from every war, including veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We always try to help the young guys,” Rendine said. “In Vietnam, we had force protection, where we would be brought somewhere safe out of combat. It’s not the same in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Rendine said he wants to help because of his experience returning from Vietnam.
“We were treated badly when we came back,” he said, although he sees changes in how veterans are treated today.
But the memories stick with him. He finds some solace in a statue located near the Vietnam memorial that depicts three nurses and a wounded soldier, a statue he calls “faith, hope, and despair.” One nurse is looking up toward an incoming helicopter, another tends to the soldier’s wounds and the third looks, downcast, toward the ground.
Rendine, however, tries to not despair about the dead, and he finds solace and hope riding a motorcycle.
“It’s a standard motorcycle phrase: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” he said.