This was the third time I’ve participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March. The first year I entered in the military heavy category. This meant I wore my full Army uniform, including combat boots and carried a 42 lbs ruck sack (a military issued backpack). The requirement is 35 lbs. How did I end up with 42 lbs then? Well, that’s what happens when you train with two fellow females and one shows up the morning of the march with entirely too much weight and we distribute it. Bad idea. Bring non-perishable food items instead of military issued gear so you can donate what you don’t need to make weight.
That first year was grueling. And while I had trained for the months leading up for the 26.2 miles up and down and through every terrain imaginable in the southern New Mexico desert, I still found myself slow as a turtle. Which is kind of what I looked like. I’m a smaller framed female. Military gear is not made for my size. It’s a one size fits all mentality that rarely fits smaller statured females. The ruck sack literally encompassed me head to high hamstring and is an easy foot wider than I am. This makes it tough to fit well for walking that distance too. But alas, I completed the march that year. I won’t even tell you how long it took me…let’s just say it was dark and I was about to be pulled off the course. But I’m stubborn and persistent and was not going to let anything stand in my way of completing the march on my own two feet.
You see, participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March isn’t about completing a marathon distance. It isn’t about how quickly you can do so. It isn’t about earning bragging rights (though I admit I brag about it when pressed). It’s about commemorating the WWII Veteran’s who were forced by the Japanese Army to endure a 65 mile trek through the Philippine Bataan Peninsula after they were captured and became POWs. The American and Filipino soldiers had no food, no water and watched their comrades literally falling over from exhaustion, dehydration or succumbing to their injuries. What awaited them on the other end? For some, 40 months of confinement camps, others death ships to the main Japanese islands. These men endured the march, the confinement and thankfully for some, eventual rescue. Their courage, spirit and enduring faith in one another helped bolster them and sustain them throughout the ordeal.
Do you know what’s remarkable though? The survivors who are able to attend the opening ceremony each year of the commemorative march line the starting line willing to shake the hands of those who are walking in their honor. And the survivors, the SURVIVORS say ‘thank you’ to each person who walks by them. Thanking them for not forgetting. Thanking them for participating in the march to honor those who came before. Thanking them for their spirit and endurance. Never ceases to amaze me that these men who are now mostly in their late nineties, who endured THE Bataan Death March, and lived to tell their stories of time spent as POWs, are standing there, shaking my hand telling me ‘thank you’. The most humbling experience.
The second time I participated in the march I did so in the civilian light category. I ran it as a marathon. Still as challenging given the terrain and heat as participating in the military heavy category. But a much lighter load and done in half the time!
This year, I again was carrying a sort of ‘ruck sack’. Though this time attached to the front of my body and not something I can remove when I get tired. I also completed the half march, or 14.2 miles instead of the 26.2. I honestly wasn’t going to challenge my body to the 6 Mile Hill, dirt and asphalt and rocks and sand, plus that distance while six months pregnant. I know, excuses excuses. But I can tell you it’s no less of an experience if you chop out half the terrain. I still stood in the chilly pre-dawn opening ceremony listening to the roll call of the survivors who had passed away over the last year. I listened to the harrowing account of what the men went through. Stood at attention when the flag was raised and Taps played to honor the departed. It’s incredible how absolutely silent more than 6,200 people can be!
The buzz and excitement at the start line of the Bataan Memorial Death March is like no other race (I have dozens under my belt, I know). Mixed in with the adrenaline-fueled anticipatory chatter is a quiet reverence you will find no where else. If you have yet to participate in this event, make it a point to try. Every late March in Las Cruces, NM at White Sands Missile range you have an opportunity. If you have participated, I’d love to hear your stories so please do leave it in the comments below.
For some more information on the Bataan Death March visit the New Mexico National Guard Museum website.