Supporting the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” and current Veterans
When Tom and I began planning Veterans Trek, we had the idea that we could help ourselves heal, provide abundant awareness of issues influencing Veterans and their families, and do our best to raise as much money as we could to support a local nonprofit aimed at helping Veterans. Our allegiance was never to any individual or entity. We aimed to support the whole community–Veterans specifically– in every way we could. The monetary support we raised has helped Dryhootch address the issues it sees fit to address within its organization and, hopefully, continue to provide a needed service for Veterans in and around its locations. We’ve done our part for them and wish them the best as they carry on with their work.
But the work is not over for Tom or myself when it comes raising awareness, raising donations to assist organizations, and doing what we can to positively influence the condition of Veterans presently and in the future. We are actively working to plan future trips where we can bring Veterans and provide peer support to them, as well as bringing participating Veterans together to expand their support networks. When we separate from the military, we often leave those we served with behind as they, too, travel to different parts of the country. One of our aims is to bring these Veterans back together not only to support one another at that time, but also to be there when their comrades are in need so we can work to lower the 22 Veteran per day suicide rate, address PTSD and related issues, and provide meaningful and tangible takeaways to help create a healthy foundation moving forward.
The first opportunity to do this happened this past weekend. Tom and I teamed up with four other Veterans to participate in a one day event– the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon. We would like to thank Delta Defense/USCCA and Black Hawk for sponsoring us and providing the travel, entry fee, lodging, food, and equipment needed to complete this event. Also, a special shout out to our newest team members–Mark, Kevin, Brandon, and Steve. They each did something they hadn’t done before in tackling this.
The first thing to say about this marathon is that it was hard. Really hard. We all carried 35 plus pounds of rice, beans, and other food to meet the minimum weight requirements for our rucks along with water and food for ourselves. All the extra food we carried was then donated to a local food pantry.
Now, some may say that walking 26.2 miles should be easy for Tom and me. While it certainly helps that we recently finished our long trek, it doesn’t provide us a “Get Out of Pain Free” card. Since our return home about 6 weeks ago, Tom and I have continued to walk, but we aren’t logging almost 20 miles a day like we did during the trek to Los Angeles. We have spent our time walking with Veterans and providing what support we can while trying to plan future treks to assist other Veterans. Still, our bodies have adapted to life off the road. My legs and hips and arms and back have been supporting a playful 2 year old more than a ruck lately. Our eyes have been fixed on friends and family more than the vast expanse of the miles ahead. Our minds have been relaxed and able to recuperate rather than opened for exploration. And our feet that grew hard like an old sponge removed from the dish water for a week have softened a bit. Both Tom and I anticipated a long, painful day on the grounds of White Sands Missile Range. Well, we got it.
The Bataan Death March, as many of you probably know, was a grueling, tortuous, and evil time for the captured US and Filipino servicemen in the custody of their Japanese captors during World War 2. Not only were death tolls high due to disease, illness, beatings, executions, and lack of medical care, but many men died after the march when Allied forces, unknowingly, bombed and attacked locations and ships where survivors were. All told, 100′s of Americans and 1,000s of Filipinos died at the hands of their captors on the walk. The annual marathon brings together Veterans, current US and foreign military participants, civilians, and supporters to remember the men who died and survived that brutal time and provide support to today’s Veterans. We were fortunate to meet 3 survivors of the Bataan Death March in New Mexico this past weekend. They are amazing men and we all owe, regardless of political persuasion or any other factor, a great deal of gratitude for these men and what they endured on our Nation’s behalf.
Our group made our way to New Mexico to participate in the marathon to not only show support for the Bataan survivors and Veterans, but also to push and challenge ourselves. We all anticipated the varying challenges we would face and all members of our group, outside of Tom and I, had never walked 26.2 miles in one day before. Tom and I did our best to provide advice prior to the walk to not only increase the chances of success, but also instill the confidence required to attempt something like this. The thing is, Veterans don’t want for confidence when challenged, so that was something that was quite easy to achieve.
Rather than spend a lot of time describing to you the conditions, I will be brief. It was hot, dry, dusty, windy, and the elevation was a challenge. The elevation was only about 1 mile up, but we live at an elevation of about 800 feet above sea level, so it did provide a challenge. Our legs began to ache on the constant climb stretch. Our motivation was tested on the undulating hill stretch. Our shoulders began to sag as the weight supported by them mixed with time. All our bodies felt the loss of support from a mile straight of 1 foot deep loose sand that taunted us as we plodded through it at the 21st mile. We all seemed to feel the pain of every person we saw as we limped and winced and slogged along in time like a grotesque chorus line. And all resolve was tested as we neared the end and every corner we rounded took us down another stretch away from the finish line when every thought was that “this is the last turn.”
As I neared the end, I began to reflect on the end of the walk to LA. When we finished in LA, we were swarmed by reporters and stabbed at by microphones and camera lenses from every direction. Had I been in a white robe, an onlooker may have thought it was some nouveau adaptation and performance of the assassination of Julius Caesar, a critique on media, perhaps. Well, maybe not, but I certainly felt like I had no route of escape. Our constant 5 month mission was over. Just like that. One step it was still on. The next step it was over. It was such a hurried moment that true appreciation for it was impossible for me. But at Bataan, I found myself thinking of it. I began to think of the people who were there to provide us that list bit of motivation. Some of those people, like Charles, Tina, JT, Roy, and Emily had provided food, a place to stay, and other needs along the trip. Others simply found themselves caught in the wave of activity that swept down on the pier and were curious about what was happening. As I neared the end of Bataan, I, for the first time, truly began to think of the end of Milwaukee
to LA. One ending brought on by another.
One ending brought on by another was what I had hoped to achieve from Veterans Trek. I wanted the end of Veterans Trek to mark the end of the my time dealing with my own issues, or at least the end of past struggles. I wanted that end to bring on another. That is what doing things like these treks does–it brings out of you the feeling you desire to achieve. It isn’t so much an accomplishment. It is fulfilling your focus.
When you walk like this, there is pain and discomfort. You wonder why you are doing this to yourself. That thought was something I thought while in Iraq. Why did I volunteer for this? What was I thinking? I could have just waited to be deployed, but I had to go ahead and volunteer. Now my family is home worrying about me and on and on and on. Well, in the same way, questions begin to find their way through the cracks of your consciousness while you trek–questions you now have the time and desire to ponder and answer. One of the guys who walked with us remarked that during a portion of Bataan, he began to experience “profound” realizations about his life– at 48 years old. I remember being struck by his use of the word profound and was inspired by his enthusiasm. I, like the other team members, was so happy and proud for his accomplishment. Another team member talked about the most influential part of the day being spent talking with Tom as they traversed the cruel, windy mountain area. The discussions they had helped him understand some things and give him actionable things to work on. By the end of the marathon, these two were at the end of the time before knowing these things about themselves. One end brought an end to the other.
When I asked them all what they enjoyed most, I heard “camaraderie” and “the challenge” listed among others. The beauty part of this weekend for me was that we all finished our walk. We all achieved something that most hadn’t. But most importantly, we had the chance to experience this together and share in the accomplishments that each had. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to get to know each of the others guys better–I feel like after 5 months of constant companionship, I know Tom pretty well. I’m pretty sure I could accurately order him food at a restaurant of any type. I’ve been married almost 10 years and I still don’t think I could do that for my wife–weird, I know.
This experience also brought back the realization I need to get back to these blog posts. Hopefully it’ll occur more regularly. What I would like is for Veterans or family members to reach out to me at email@example.com if they’re willing to write about their experiences and feelings about the state of affairs for Veterans. I want to give as many Veterans a chance to be heard as possible and would feel privileged for the chance to post your contributions here.
So, again, a special thanks to Delta Defense/USCCA and Black Hawk for their support. And, special recognition to Mark, Steve, Kevin, and Brandon for spending their weekend not on the NCAA, but more importantly bringing about a new motivation for each of themselves and achieving a goal.
With that, stay tuned as more posts will follow and, hopefully, some will be from you.