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Airmen hosted a local Bataan Memorial Death March May 28, 2020 at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, after the annual event, which was scheduled March 15, was canceled.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a 26.2-mile ruck that honors the 60,000 – 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war who were forced by the Japanese Imperial Army to march 65 miles to prison camps after the Battle of Bataan in World War II.
“The memorial is typically done in White Sands, New Mexico, but it was canceled due to COVID-19,” said Maj. Justin Gabbard, 50th Comptroller Squadron commander. “We couldn’t control that the event was canceled, but it was within our control to complete the challenge. When we set a goal, we’re going to do everything within our power to make sure we can complete it.”
Although the Airmen had more time to prepare for the substitute ruck, completing it in Colorado proved to be difficult. Due to the Schriever Air Force Base elevation (6,237 feet), the oxygen is thinner than most of the country; birthing the saying “the air is rare.”
“I’ve run the Marine Corps Marathon, and it’s an entirely different challenge,” Gabbard said. “In a marathon, it’s more cardio, whereas when you’re rucking with that amount of weight on your back, you have to deal with severe muscle fatigue. It also takes a lot longer and you’re wearing boots instead of tennis shoes which can cause more blisters. To me, this was more difficult than running a marathon.”
While already honoring the fallen, Gabbard saw an opportunity to memorialize and honor another fallen comrade.
“We were raising money for [Col. Erick “Fangs” Gilbert],” Gabbard said. “He was a mentor of mine who recently passed away – leaving behind his wife and two sons. So we wanted to do something to show appreciation for how much he cared and invested in others. We wanted to let his family know they are still a part of the Air Force family and make sure they were taken care of.”
The Airmen who marched raised $2,000 in Gilbert’s honor, via GoFundMe, which will be used to provide Gilbert’s sons an opportunity to attend summer camps and attend baseball coaching lessons.
Gabbard met Gilbert while working as a speech writer in a Command Action Group. Gilbert was Gabbard’s boss and mentor.
“He was genuine,” Gabbard said. “Working on a [Command Action Group] is hard. Every day you have a new task in something you’re not familiar with as you’re operating outside of your primary [training]. Every Friday, [Gilbert] would walk out, give the team a fist bump, congratulate us on making it to Friday and then we’d enjoy a beverage and he’d give us some informal mentorship. He just poured himself into everybody he worked with, it was the most one-on-one mentorship I’ve ever had.”
The Schriever ruck team consisted of five Airmen: Gabbard, Lt. Col. Andrea Hall, 50th Space Wing staff judge advocate; Master Sgt. Heather Ruhlman, 21st Space Wing judge advocate’s office superintendent; Lt. Col. Brendon Herbeck, incoming 22nd Space Operations Squadron commander; and Lt. Col. Alan Burwell, 50th Operations Support Squadron commander.
“This was uncomfortable for me,” Gabbard said. “I’m a powerlifter, I do sprints, so a nine-hour ruck march is swimming in deep water. But when you challenge yourself that’s when you learn the most about yourself. You learn just how far you can push yourself if you step outside of your comfort zone.”
There are four different categories for weight while participating in the original annual ruck event. Civilian light and military light, which require no additional weight, and civilian and military heavy, which require participants to carry 35 pounds in their bags. To participate in the military heavy category, participants wear a military uniform and carry a current military ID.
“I participated in this event 12 years ago when I was stationed at Holloman Air Force Base,” said Hall. “I completed the memorial march in the civilian light category. It was tough and took me just over eight hours. [However,] I wanted to challenge myself to complete the march in the military heavy category with a pack.”
Hall finished this year in 8 hours and 12 minutes, beating her previous time (when she carried no weight) by 5 minutes.
”Any time you can set a goal and achieve it is a win. It makes you stronger both physically and mentally,” Hall said. “Set realistic goals, prepare for them, and meet them. Also, I think every goal can be more easily achieved if you are a part of a team.”
Before participating, Gabbard had asked soldiers who are experienced in rucking for advice. They told him that his body would struggle with anything over 13 miles, but with the right mentality, he could accomplish it.
“It was brutal,” Gabbard said. “But you don’t do it for it to be easy, you do it to honor those who came before you and what they had to endure.”
For the Airmen, this event required teamwork as it is also a requirement everyone finishes within 20 seconds of one another. All the Airmen finished the march.
“I was constantly reminding myself that we’re a family and if we don’t take care of one another, no one else will,” he said. “My purpose here was to pay tribute to those who have served prior to [me], and take care of my family that just suffered a loss.”
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