Palin's arrival -- she showed up clad in black jeans, a leather jacket and a Harley Davidson helmet -- kicked off the Tea Party favorite's bus tour up the northeastern coast which has fueled speculation she'll run for president in 2012.
It also overwhelmed Rolling Thunder's security capabilities and strained organizers' patience as photographers, journalists and admirers swarmed the former Alaska governor after she hopped off the back of a black bike in the parking lot of the Pentagon (the AP reported her bike had a likeness of President George W. Bush on the windshield with the words "Miss Me?" written on it). Attendees worried the "paparazzi" would knock over their expensive bikes and shouted at photographers and journalists scrambling to ask Palin a question.
There were few details about the tour available -- even media covering the event don't know where to go next -- and Palin herself seemed to be winging it.
"So what's the plan?" she asked the one advance staffer on location after hopping off the bike driven by a female rider (which others have reported was her daughter Willow).
West for one said that the talk should focus on vets and not Palin.
"I don't think any talk about Palin coming here is right here, the talk is about Memorial Day, the talk is about like I said those people who have given that ultimate sacrifice," West said after making a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" joke because of this reporter's choice to wear a pink shirt to the event.
"After you served 22 years in the United States Army, what brings me out today is there are people here that I served with, there are people here who served with my older brother in Vietnam," West, who rented a bike because getting his own up from Florida was too much trouble, told TPM.
"This is the right thing, for us to always remember those who had given their lives in the ultimate sacrifice and to never forget our POWs and MIAs," West said.
Some were upset by the way Palin showed up.
"I'm very not appreciative of the way she came in here," Ted Shpak, Rolling Thunder's national legislative director, told Rachel Weiner of the Washington Post. "If she wanted to come on the ride, she should have come in the back." (Palin, instead, came in the front of the Pentagon's north parking lot, where event staff and press had gathered.)
Others were cautiously supportive.
"As long as she doesn't make it political and eject her politics in it, it's okay," said Fay Parpart, who rolled in from Richmond on the back of a motorcycle driven by her partner of 20 years and describes herself as a lifetime Democrat.
Palin, along with her husband Todd and daughters Bristol and Piper, proceeded into D.C. on bikes from the Pentagon parking lot to the Vietnam Memorial. Palin reportedly planned to visit the National Archive to view the Constitution later in the day.
Hours after the event, Palin posted photos and a statement about Rolling Thunder on her website.
"Today's Rolling Thunder rally in DC is all about freedom," she wrote. "And it's about duty and loyalty and service. The message heard loud and clear through the roar of tens of thousands of bike engines declared, 'We will never forget our heroes left behind!' Truly, our POWs and MIAs honored today are America's real heroes."
Here's video of Palin's chaotic appearance at the Rolling Thunder event:
[Ed. note: this story has been updated.]