By Senior Master Sgt. Augusto Goncalves
39th Aerial Port Squadron
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. — Six Air Force Reservists assigned to the 302nd Airlift Wing completed the 2016 Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range March 20, 2016. The Bataan Memorial Death March is an annual commemorative event conducted in the high-desert in honor of the many heroic Prisoners of War who were captured while defending the Philippine Islands during World War II and forced to march 65 miles.
Today’s commemorative march is a challenging 26.2 mile course through the desert terrain of White Sands Missile Range in southern N.M. Covering paved roads and very sandy trails, the march is regarded by Marathon Guide as one of the top 30 marathons in the United States.
We regarded ourselves as the “Fab6”meaning Fabulous 6, in reference to the Michigan basketball team in the 90’s. The 302nd AW team included myself, Senior Master Sgts. Dan Douglas, Tracey White, Tech. Sgts. Gregory Strauch and Douglas Lemp all from the 39th Aerial Port Squadron and Senior Airman Charity Zalasar from the 302nd Logistics Readiness Squadron, Traffic Management Office.
“I thought this would be an excellent team building event for fellow Airmen, as well as a way to pay tribute to the POWs,” said Douglas.
Reservists, Guardsmen, Active Duty, Veterans and civilians, of all ages and services completed the march for various reasons. Some did it strictly for the challenge. Others did it in uniform with 35-pound rucksacks filled with canned food to be donated at the end. Many completed the march to honor lost friends, family members and war brothers and sisters by carrying their name tapes, photos, dog tags, shoes or other memorabilia.
“The large crowd formed before sunrise,” said Douglas. “I thought it was very interesting to see a mixture of vets from around the world.” There were soldiers with uniforms from Germany, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines. “The energy was so positive, not just patriotic feelings for the United States, but a feeling of international comradery,” remarked Douglas.
A Veteran, with a prosthetic leg, told us he was there to represent and honor his fellow vet who died in the same IED [Improvised Explosive Device] explosion that cost him his foot. Douglas and I were moved not only by this man’s strength to march 26.2 miles with one foot, but also by his dedication to his brother.
At the start, all marchers are excited and full of energy. By mile 14 everyone was tired and were wondering what they got themselves into. At mile 22 all one wants to do is finish.
“The challenge for me was pain,” admitted White. “The march itself was very long and exhausting, but it really came down to a pain management race. It was the single most difficult activity I had ever done in my life!”
To everyone’s credit, we, Fab6, lived up to our name and completed the grueling march as a team. We were determined to cross the line together.
“It cost me three toenails!” exclaimed Zalasar. “But I put my head down and placed my steps in the foot prints of the guy in front of me and just kept going.”
White said, “The camaraderie was great and we had plenty of time to talk, laugh and encourage each other to endure the pain and keep going.”
With wonderful volunteers and aid-stations every few miles, the march is a Sunday walk when compared to the real march in 1942 through scorching hot and humid Philippine jungles as war prisoners.
“Even though it happened long ago, it’s important for the survivors to know that our current generation has not forgotten their sacrifice,” said Zalasar. “It is also a reminder that there is still a war going on right now.”
In addition to the historical significance and physical challenges of the march, we Reservists also had an opportunity to learn more about each other.
“We all enjoyed the road trip and got to know each other so much more than during the regular UTAs [reserve Unit Training Assemblies],” said Douglas. “I hope others from the 302nd can experience a team building event like the Bataan Memorial Death March.”