WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. — The 35 mph wind gusts were almost hard enough to stop the team members in their tracks. The loose sand that had been a constant frustration over the past 24 miles was getting lifted up and blown into their eyes and gasping mouths. It had been a grueling trek to get to this point, and the last 2.2 miles proved to be the longest and most drawn out miles of all of their lives.
The 11 members of the 707th Military Intelligence Battalion’s Forward Watch Bataan Detachment from Fort Gordon put hundreds of miles of marching and months of training to the test when they took part in the 24th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March, March 17 at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a yearly 26.2-mile march held in the New Mexican desert over harsh terrain and high elevation. It commemorates the march that took place in the Philippines during World War II. The Memorial Death March is highlighted by survivors of that original march who come to White Sands and share their stories with the participants.
The desire to test themselves with an extreme physical challenge was a major motivation for all of the members of the 707th MI Bataan team.
“Experiencing the Bataan Death March was on my bucket list for a decade,” said Maj. Aimee M. Hemery, the 707th’s intelligence officer and Forward Watch Bataan Detachment commander. “I wanted the challenge of attempting one of the most strenuous marathons. Serving in the U.S. Army, the actual Bataan Death March was a significant event in our profession. Being half Filipino, it was also a nod to my heritage. Every year, I’ve had an excuse as to why I couldn’t try. This year I just ran out of excuses.”
“I was looking for a challenge,” said Sgt. Benjamin P. Brown, a cryptologic linguist. “I wanted to challenge myself and prove to my soldiers that just because you sit at a desk all day, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do physical events. It doesn’t mean that you can’t push your body.”
In order to do something as strenuous as Bataan, everyone had to put in months of training. The schedule called for marches six days a week with an ever increasing culmination march every Saturday morning. The start of the training régime began with short marches of only a few miles but grew to as long as 20 miles at one time over six hours.
“I developed a training program which we all followed,” said Sgt. 1st Class Andrew P. Johnson. “We gradually increased the distance each week. I think the training gave everyone a good baseline. Throughout the preparation, we were really able to get to know the equipment we were going to be using, whether it was our boots or our rucksack.”
“Without the training I would never have been able to finish, but I don’t think I was prepared for the terrain or the altitude,” said Spc. Kenneth C. King. “The mileage on my feet, I was prepared for that, but not for the course itself. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
The members of the Forward Watch Bataan Detachment universally agreed that the course was much harder than expected. They all hit a point where they questioned their ability to finish the event.
“I kept going because I didn’t want to let down my battle buddies,” said Spc. Ronald C. Robison. “I wanted to keep the team together. I didn’t want to fail myself. I’ve put so many hours into training and walked so many miles that to cut myself short at this point would be a total failure and a complete disappointment.”
“At miles 20 through 24 I hit a wall,” said Sgt. David R. Merin. “Everyone had walls in different places, but everyone made it through their walls. That’s what the great thing is. Everybody made it through their walls; everybody finished and everybody is still in one piece.”
The toughness of the course humbled all of the participants from the 707th. Despite doubts, every person finished the full 26.2 miles. The five-man military heavy team even finished fifth out of 21 teams in its category. All members of the team said that they learned just how far they could push themselves and that they gained valuable insight into what it takes to persevere.
“I saw a few soldiers who were single or double amputees out there,” said Spc. Jason A. Postema. “It gives you perspective. I’m out there hating life, and then I see this guy who is missing a leg just tromping along, and you just realize you are lucky that you can feel pain in both of your feet. It gives you a perspective which I think everybody can use.”
“I got a lot of things out of the experience, but the biggest thing was that I learned a lot about myself,” said Sgt. 1st Class Mark E. Johns. “I learned a lot about my giving up points, and perseverance. It was a refresher of personal breaking points and what’s needed, the fortitude and determination that’s needed, to keep taking steps and finish.
“That’s what I did from mile 20 to 26, just kept taking steps. I think that stuff is
really important because
you can’t unlock your potential unless you know yourself.”
In addition to learning valuable lessons about themselves and how to persevere, the participants forged new bonds with fellow team members that will last long after the blisters and the pain of the march have gone.