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An Airman's Heritage Experience: The 20th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March 2009

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Sammie Spears
  • Kirtland Airman Leadership School commandant
About two months ago, Staff Sgt. David Perez, Kirtland Airman Leadership School instructor, and I discussed participating in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March. We thought of forming a team to compete in the event so we contacted the Kirtland Noncommissioned Officer's Academy staff to gauge their interest. We figured a Kirtland Professional Military Education Team sounded like fun. Master Sgt. E'Lon Chapman, KNCOA director of operations, accepted the challenge. We decided to go all out and sign up for the infamous military heavy division, which consisted of a 26.2 mile march, while carrying a backpack with no less than 35 pounds while wearing an authorized military uniform. So the team was set, the date, March 29, was set and our goal was set -- complete the course!

I never realized the magnitude of this event. As I booked our lodging in local hotels, many were sold out due to participants or offered special rates for the weekend. White Sands Missile Range is a fully functioning military instillation. However, the base devoted all available assets to this cause, starting two full days prior to the march.

The morning of March 29th was an average southern New Mexico morning filled with cool air and light wind. As we pulled into the parking lot in WSMR, we could feel the excitement in the air. It was 0437hrs and the base was brimming with activity.

I couldn't help but feel anxious about what were about to do: march 26.2 miles in uniform carrying 35-pound rucksacks. At first, it didn't seem like too much. Then I actually put it on my back and tried to run. I had trained with a weight vest and ran up to 40 miles per week, but none of that directly translated to this experience.

This event was a first for all of us; Sergeant Chapman had run a marathon and Sergeant Perez and I had run half-marathons, but none of us had ever attempted anything close to this.

The staging area carried a festive aura. Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," saturated the air and hundreds of people milled around; some on the ground catching a final power nap and others huddled around the snack tables looking for early morning fuel. If it wasn't for the occasional yawn and sun trying to break into the darkness, I would have thought it to be an evening event, not the start of a day-long journey.

We soon met up with Staff Sgt. Gregory Kuzinski, 377th Mission Support Squadron, and his family. His wife and son came out to send their marcher on his trek, a 15.2 -ile hike through the mountains. The crowd was filled with people from all walks of life; however the Bataan Veterans were by far the most prominent. Officers and enlisted members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces peppered the staging area, as well as members from Great Britain, Germany and Canada, to name a few.
In addition to the military, civilians were in full force, not only as spectators, but as participants, marching alongside the military members in every category.

Then the moment came. A voice on the loud speaker began counting down to the opening ceremonies and eventually the start of the march. The highlight of the ceremony was the introduction of the Bataan Survivors in attendance. I was fortunate enough to be standing in the path of the survivors as they made way to their seats. As they passed me, I shook their hands and thanked them for their service, each one of them however, responded with a thank you to me for coming to honor them and serving our country.

The humility and sincerity in their voices warmed my heart as my body shivered from the 37 degree temperatures. I knew that no matter what pain or triumphs we endured today, we could never measure up to what these great men have experienced. The opening ceremonies concluded with a flyover of two F-22 Raptors from Holloman AFB. As Air Force members, we were drastically outnumbered, but all eyes seemed to be on us as the Raptors climbed into the atmosphere and eventually disappeared into the morning twilight. At this point, I couldn't tell if the shivers were from the cold weather or the awesome events I was witnessing.

The marchers were launched. Our category; 26.2 miles, military heavy, was the last to go out. As the corral gate opened, we started out into the course. The survivors and other motivated onlookers cheered us on and wished us a safe return.

With our limited endurance sports training in mind, we decided to run one quarter of every mile and walk the other three. This idea seemed to work well and we projected completing the course in less than seven hours. However, we did not anticipate the rough terrain that lay ahead.

At about 2 miles into the march, the course turned from pavement to a primitive dirt road covered in sand. As we trudged through the dirt and dodged marchers, we encountered our first GWOT survivor. This young soldier lost both of his legs below the knee caps, but was maneuvering the course with the help of prosthetic legs, wrist crutches and a family member. This soldier was a new amplifier for my determination to complete this course.

The gradual incline on the next leg was extremely deceiving. We decided to cease the running until the terrain leveled out. Unfortunately, it did not. At this point, the course was littered with marchers nursing sore leg muscles and the biggest culprit, blisters. All of the medic stations seemed to be more and more populated with marchers who succumbed to their ailments.

We chatted with marchers from other nations and services as we marched.We even had a few AF members from other bases that hitched along with us.

The next portion of the course took us around a small peak, with various elevation changes. We hydrated and ate at every break station.

Earlier that morning, I received a valuable tip from a Bataan Veteran Marcher: "If there's water - drink it, if there's food, eat it, if there's a latrine, use it." We took this advice and followed it to the letter.

Somewhere around mile 17, I injured my leg. Sergeant Perez suggested that I get to the medic tent. However, my determination (sometimes called stubbornness) pushed me to refuse help. I just limped along and tried to keep a good pace. I finally got a wrap for my knee from the medic tent, which provided a little help (more so mental than anything else). 

We trotted down the hill to mile marker 20, where Sergeant Perez needed the medics to check his blisters. His blisters were the worst the medical staff had seen all day. He was eventually treated by the doctor on staff and to our relief, allowed to continue.

The last six miles seemed like a small task compared to what we already accomplished, but our ailments made them the toughest ever. The portion of the course known as "The Sand Pit," was uphill and covered in deep sand. The suffocating sand and blistering wind seemed to choke the sunshine from the air.

As the mile markers got higher, 24, 25, 26, we were all infused with a sense of relief and accomplishment. We could finally see the finish! Here the course was lined with onlookers cheering and an occasional, "Go Air Force!" could be heard above the cheers, which made me stand taller and hide my pain.

At last, we crossed the finish line and were greeted by more Bataan survivors congratulating us for completing the course. The event staff weighed our packs to ensure we marched with the appropriate weight. To our surprise, we were all carrying more weight than required!

We did it. A huge accomplishment for us, but in all actuality it wasn't for us. Many of us often forget the sacrifice our brothers and sisters in arms make every day to keep us safe. We often overlook the veteran who has lost more than his youth in the service of our country. We fail to remember the struggles made by nameless and faceless American service members of our past. We fail to honor those who have given all for the freedoms we enjoy every day.

It is up to us and generations to come to ensure our military history and heritage remain alive and a vital part of our military culture. After all, we cannot set a new course for our future without recognizing and appreciating where we have been.

Sergeant Chapman, Sergeant Perez and I are nursing our wounds and contemplating doing this again next year. Seems a little crazy after what we went through, but it was nothing compared to what the original Bataan Death Marchers experienced.