Before dawn, 20 special tactics airmen began last week on an 830-mile ruck march honoring Staff Sgt. Dylan J. Elchin, a special tactics combat controller from Hookstown, Pa., killed in Afghanistan in late November, and 19 other special tactics airmen killed in the line of duty since 9/11.
The marchers will cross through five states in 11 days as they hump from Medina Annex at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas, where special tactics airmen begin their training, to Hurlburt Field, east of Pensacola, Fla., where they graduate from Special Tactics Training Squadron and are deemed combat ready.
“Thus the march mimics the training passage our Airmen endure,” the Air Force’s 24th Special Operations Wing said in a statement.
Posts shared by the Air Force Special Operations Command and other units on social media invites people along the route to join by rucking along, cheering them on or waving flags on overpasses along the way.
The march, which is also meant to honor Gold Star Families, started as a tradition to honor special tactics airmen killed in the line of duty a decade ago, originating to honor Staff Sgt. Timothy Davis of Aberdeen, Wash., who died on Feb. 20 of that year in a roadside bomb blast in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, the statement said.
In 2011, it was renamed to honor all fallen special tactics airmen.
This year’s march, the fifth since its founding, follows Elchin’s death on Nov. 27 when the vehicle he was traveling in hit a roadside bomb in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. The blast that also killed Army Special Forces soldiers Capt. Andrew Ross and Sgt. 1st Class Eric Emond, both of Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 3rd Special Forces Group. Army Sgt. Jason McClary died later from injuries received in the blast.
Before beginning the trek, the airmen completed a traditional set of 10 four-count pushups meant to memorialize their fallen comrades, followed by four one-count versions of the exercise for specific causes. Each one-count repetition began with a leader yelling out the cause and a chorus of airmen shouting a response. The chorus repeats the call at the top of each rep.
“One for teamwork!” the exercise leader yells before the first pushup, in a pre-dawn video posted to the Air Force Special Tactics Facebook page. He continues: “One for fallen comrades! … One for Dylan Elchin! … One for our 3rd Group buddies!”
Footage posted a short while later shows a vehicle with flashing lights leading a column of airmen stepping off on the route. The troops wear red or black t-shirts and glow belts, some with American flags stuck into their rucks.
This year’s march began on the 17th anniversary of the death of pararescueman Master Sgt. William McDaniel’s of Greenville, Ohio. The first of 20 special tactics airmen killed since 9/11, McDaniel died in a helicopter crash during a 2002 training exercise in the Philippines.
There are about 1,000 special tactics operators serving in the Air Force, making up an elite community that ranks as the service’s most decorated since the Vietnam war.
The marchers are scheduled to arrive at Hurlburt Field in the afternoon of March 4, the 17-year anniversary of the death of Master Sgt. John Chapman and Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, both of whom were killed in the Battle of Roberts Ridge, a harrowing clash atop Afghanistan’s Takur Gar mountain in the early months of the war.
Chapman, a special tactics combat controller from Windsor Locks, Conn., became the first airman since Vietnam and the first special tactics expert to ever receive the nation’s highest award for valor when his Air Force Cross was posthumously upgraded to the Medal of Honor for his actions, which witnesses said saved the lives of several Navy SEALs.
All 20 airmen participating in the march this year were expected to hike the first 4.7 miles together. From there, teams of two would alternate, hiking about 12 miles of each day’s planned leg of 70 miles. Along the way, they will carry a baton inscribed with the 20 names of their special tactics colleagues killed since 2001.
The unit’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages will post updates of the march over the course of the next week and a half. An online tracker will display their progress.
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