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ROTC cadets honor service members killed at Kabul airport with 13-mile ‘ruck march’

The Army ROTC Ranger Challenge team participate in a 13-mile ruck march along Silver Strand State Beach. (Rob Nikolewski/ The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

More than 80 Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC cadets strapped as much as 50 pounds of gear on their backs at daybreak Saturday for a grueling march up and down Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado.

For many of them, thoughts focused less on the physical demands of what’s called a “ruck march” and more on the 13 members of U.S. military who died in the Aug. 26 attack at the Kabul airport.

“That really sent some shockwaves because those kids were my age,” said Chris O’Dowd, an Air Force ROTC cadet and a senior at Point Loma Nazarene University. “This hits home. So running this today, yes, they’re gone but their memory lives on in the family that is the military.”

The San Diego State University ROTC organized the event to honor the service members, and while the U.S. Army’s target distance for a ruck march is typically 12 miles, the cadets traversed 13 miles — one for each life lost at the Kabul Airport.

“It’s pretty challenging,” said Ivan Loaiza, an SDSU senior and Army ROTC cadet who was instrumental in organizing the ruck march. “But it doesn’t anywhere near compare to that (sacrifice) those 13 have made.”

Two suicide bombs went off during the attack at the airport outside Kabul, the site of a frenzied evacuation effort of civilians in Afghanistan. Some 170 Afghans were killed, along with 11 Marines, an Army soldier and a Navy corpsman. Nine of the service members were based at Camp Pendleton.

“I’m going to be in the Army as an officer and it’s expected of officers and leaders to be standing and supporting our brothers and sisters in arms,” said Jonah Andrews, an ROTC cadet attending Point Loma Nazarene. Andrews carried 25 pounds of gear and covered the 13 miles in a brisk 2 hours and 32 minutes.

Claire Rodriguez and Amaryllis Stohl, two Army ROTC cadets attending the University of San Diego, marched together and were the first women to finish.

“I love to challenge myself physically and mentally,” said Rodriguez, who lugged about 35 pounds. “It’s really rewarding.”

Saturday marked the first time Strohl, who carried about 10 pounds, had attempted a ruck march. “All of it was hard,” the sophomore said. “Around the 10th mile, that’s when your legs start to give out.”

The march started at Glorietta Bay Park, and the cadets, leaving in staggered starts, went south to the end of the beach for 6.5 miles and turned back to finish.

Hayden Butchko, a 19-year-old Air Force ROTC member at SDSU, and three of his fellow cadets jogged about 75 percent of the time and walked the other 25 percent and then picked up their pace toward the end of the march.

“At mile 11, my legs, quads, hamstrings, all cramped up and I had to keep doing high-knee (lifts) to get to that finish,” Butchko said.

The march’s organizers gladly signed up a pair of last-minute additions.

Will Minor of Pittsburgh, vacationing at the Hotel del Coronado with his wife Amy, passed by the SDSU ROTC booth as he finished a predawn 5-mile jog and asked what was happening. When told of the event, the former infantry officer who also served as a major in the Marine Reserves, wanted to take part to remember the Afghan civilians killed, as well as the U.S. service members.

“Those Marines were doing what they were brought there to do, I have no doubt, and I’m sure they were all ferocious and heroic. We love the Marine Corps,” Will said.

“That was a really tragic day,” added Amy. “Anything that we can do to remember them or shed light to a cause benefitting them we’re happy to take part in.”

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