MARCH 18, 2016, FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Maryland – It’s Thursday, and you’ve been taking turns marching miles and miles for days, through Florida, Georgia, and now South Carolina. You’re exhausted and dealing with blisters, bruised legs, strained muscles, hip issues and neck and shoulder aches. But that’s what happens when you signed up to make a 770-mile trek in 11 days.
That’s what a group of Special Operations Command Marines are doing to honor 11 of their fellow service members who died a year ago in a Black Hawk crash. Seven of the fallen were their fellow Marines, now known as the Raider 7. The march is meant as a test of physical and mental stamina that’s second nature to Marines.
“That’s part of [why we’re doing] it,” said Nathan Harris, who organized the Marine Raider Memorial March. “They can’t feel any pain – they’re no longer with us. But we can. We’re alive.”
The march began on March 11 in Navarre, Florida, where the Raider 7′s helicopter went down a year before. Fifteen Marines and a few others who were close to the fallen have been marching in teams nonstop ever since. They’re more than halfway to their goal, which is their battalion’s home base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
To add to the load, each team is carrying a heavy plate engraved with the names of the fallen on it, a flag that will be presented to the families at the end, and one paddle that was found at the crash site. That’s been decorated with the men’s dog tags and, like the flag, it’s not to touch the ground during the 770-mile journey.
So how have they done so far? Better than most of us could do, that’s for sure. A lot of the ruckers got ready for the journey by doing several mini-rucks a few times a week at home. Just before the real ruck began, you could seem them stretching out to keep up their flexibility.
They also packed socks – lots of socks – to keep their feet dry.
“Once you start to get a hot spot – a spot that doesn’t feel right – you can try to change your step a bit or put some moleskin over it … but once you get a blister, there’s not much you can do,” a Marine who only wanted to be identified as Daniel told me before the march began. “The big thing is when you’re done rucking, go boots off, no socks, let your feet air out, and try to elevate them.”
Ice baths have helped, too.
Destiny Flynn, who is rucking with the Marines to honor her late husband, Staff Sgt. Liam Flynn, said it might be taking a physical toll, but they’re hanging in there – now even jamming to some tunes from one of her teammates’ Bluetooth speakers. She said mentally, the trek has been humbling and much-needed emotional healing.
“I do a lot of reflecting, healing, missing Liam and my daughter,” she said after finishing her seventh round of rucking – about 70 miles total. “I also think about the love around me. My teammates knew Liam, so I guess they might think of him, too.”
Erika Hipple, who lost her fiancé, Staff Sgt. Marcus Bawol, in the crash, is rucking, too. Flynn said she’s had some foot issues but is sticking it out. Another civilian – a 16-year-old named Garrett who chose to join the arduous journey in honor of Capt. Stanford Shaw III — is also doing well.
“Garrett has been smooth sailing and such an inspiration for our younger generation,” Flynn said.
Part of the group’s motivation has been from public support, too. The community has come out in droves, with local police, fire and EMS crews giving them escorts along the way.
“Everywhere we go, communities have come out to greet us at all hours, night and day. This Memorial March is about family,” Daniel said on the group’s Facebook page.
Family… and the memory of the men they left behind. “As we reflect on these small [rucking] inconveniences, the overarching goal of bringing our brothers home trumps everything. These 770 miles are for you, our fallen brothers, and know that we carry your paddle proudly,” the team’s Facebook page said.