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Veterans gather in Washington for "Rolling Thunder"

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The streets of Washington and the surrounding area echoed with the rumble of thousands of motorcycles on Sunday as veterans and their supporters gathered for the main events of the annual Rolling Thunder rally.

The Rolling Thunder organization -- which emphasizes prisoner of war and missing in action issues but also supports various efforts to aid veterans -- drew hundreds of thousands of participants for its 24th annual event.

Activities included a motorcycle ride at midday from the Pentagon in northern Virginia over the Potomac River into the capital, where among an afternoon rally's speakers were Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.

Gates praised the organization for helping ensure the sacrifices of those who serve in the military are not forgotten.

"For most Americans, Memorial Day weekend is a respite from work," he said. "But for those of us gathered here, it is an affirmation of our commitment to remember those heroes who have fought and died or who have been captured in defense of our nation -- not just this weekend but every day of our lives."

Mullen, a Vietnam War veteran like many in the crowd, said: "One of the things that I have seen over the course of these two wars that we're in (now) is my generation stand up in a way that many of us were not allowed to back in Vietnam for lots of reasons."

Events like the rally show those serving now that America is still connected to its military, he said.

An added element at this year's rally was the participation of Alaska's ex-governor Sarah Palin, a potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

Her arrival at the Pentagon parking lot before riders headed for the Mall in downtown Washington set off a crush of photographers and fans seeking autographs, many urging her to run for the White House and shouting "Sarah, we love you."

But her appearance, along with husband Todd and daughter Piper, drew grumbles from some other riders who said she was politicizing the annual rally for military veterans.

"I don't think you should be using this to run for public office, this is to honor vets," said Richard Orndorff, of Winchester, Virginia, who arrived at the Pentagon before dawn to line up for the ride.

Artie Muller, national executive director of Rolling Thunder, said Palin was welcome to attend like any other American. "We're all here for a reason. She's just like anybody else," he said.

Palin, in black jeans, leather jacket and motorcycle helmet, ignored shouted questions about a presidential run and said "Heck no, I'm an American," when asked if she was politicizing the rally. "I'm out here supporting veterans," she told CNN.

Palin is starting a campaign-style East Coast bus tour of historical sites that has focused attention on her presidential plans.

"There's no better way to see D.C. than on the back of a Harley," she said in a statement after the rally, adding she was more used to snow machines than motorcycles but both celebrated "a free spirit."

(Reporting by Jerry Norton and John Whitesides; Editing by James Kelleher)

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