A few weeks ago, I edited a commentary written by Navy Cross recipient Sgt. Maj. Justin Lehew, sergeant major of Training and Education Command at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. The story was about his experience walking the Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sand Missile Range, New Mexico in 2014.
It was a well-written piece and I enjoyed reading it. Little did I know, in a few weeks I would have the opportunity to share the experience with him and two other Marines.
Land of Enchantment
The topography of New Mexico is similar to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, but with more rocks and desert vegetation. It looked like the place was sort of removed from time. Old vehicles from the 1950s and 60s sit in the yards of rundown houses and shutdown businesses.
Upon arrival at the airport, I rode with Sgt. Chris Parnelli, a financial management resource analyst for Training and Education Command and Cpl. Cody Jones, a driver for the commanding general of the same command, on a trip from El Paso, Texas. We joked about the state of New Mexico being the land of enchantment. You see scant life until you pass through Las Cruces, New Mexico. Rundown buildings and broke down vehicles are seemingly misplaced in the mountainous, desert landscape.
My cohorts and I rode through the desert toward White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. To say the installation is secluded would be an understatement. It is nestled at the base of two large mountain ranges with nothing around it for 50 miles. Its isolation is expected since it was the testing ground of the Trinity Project, the test of the Atomic Bomb during World War II.
Glistening White Sands of New Mexico
Sgt. Maj. Lehew arrived the following evening and contacted us; he referred to us as his boys. We made plans to go and visit some of the sites, which I thought was a novel idea seeing there was nothing around within view.
Sergeant Major said that after our first stop we would understand why they call this place White Sands. We packed into Sergeant Major’s black ram pick-up he was renting and started to make our way to White Sands National Monument.
After about 30 minutes or so, we started to see 12-foot-tall dunes dotted with desert vegetation. You could see through the scraggly plants the purest white sand beneath. After a short stop at the museum located at the national park, I learned the color is a factor of the sands consisting nearly entirely of gypsum, the mineral found in dry wall. These dunes of white spread for 200 miles in all directions and can be seen from space. The sand is held in place due to the large underground lake, so these pristine dunes never shift outside of the circumference of this white blemish on the face of the planet.
Ham the Astrochimp
The next point of the tour was hidden in the city of Alamagordo, New Mexico, which, although secluded and out of the way, actually holds a vast treasury of history.
We parked in front of a beautiful, golden-glass-gilded, cube-shaped building in the hills overlooking the city time forgot. Walking up the steps toward the building there were numerous static displays of rockets, engines, and observation equipment. After getting an eye full of the outside, we entered the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
The museum is home of the International Space Hall of Fame pays tribute to all who dedicated their lives to space exploration or at least contributed to the overall idea. Every single artifact, from engines the size of cars to space toilets, could be observed or touched. I didn’t touch the toilet, of course.
The museum is also the final resting of arguably one of America’s greatest heroes, Ham, the ‘Astrochimp.’ Ham was the first Hominidae launched into space by NASA, Jan. 31, 1961.
His remains are buried under a small monument stone. Sergeant Major said, “It truly is a shame what happened to this American hero. He was the first monkey in space and he gets buried in Alamogordo.”
The Little Engine That Could
I will preface this with saying although I enjoy staying active and outdoors; this event was, to date, one of the hardest physical experiences of my life. My heart goes out to my brothers and soon to be sisters in the infantry, who hike like this on the regular.
Every painful step of this 26.2-mile hike gave me only a small taste of what the 60,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war experienced at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army in April 1942 in the Philippines.
The opening ceremony of the event culminated with an honorary roll call of the Bataan Death March survivors. Before this segment of the ceremony, the men were pallid statues covered with blankets being assisted by their accompanying caregivers. As soon as their names rang out breaking the pin-drop hearing silence of the cool desert morning air, their voices mustered so much power. My back straightened and the event took on a reality I had not experienced while training or traveling around Southern New Mexico.
Not long after, myself and the other Marines from the National Capital Region began our long trip on foot wearing plate carriers and whatever else we thought we might need to overcome our small taste of Bataan Death March. Of course I wore my trustee camera bag armed with my weapon of choice, a Canon 5D Mark II.
The first seven miles, the speeches, survivor roll call, taps and the cannon fire invigorated me. Soon I wore palm size blisters across the balls of my feet, which slowed me to a near snail’s pace. At this point Sgt. Parnelli, an avid marathon runner, took off like he had wings on his feet and I would not see him again till the end of the march. I had to keep going. I wanted to finish and I knew it was going to get worse. I had entered the “little engine that could” mode.
I walked with Sergeant Major for the majority of the march. We spoke about leadership, family and the future. I am not much of a fan boy, but I can honestly say he is man I am proud to look up to for the rest of my life. The humility, care and strength he exudes is something I want to grow and emulate in myself. My personal favorite trait is a realness, which I think can be often lost as you gain rank and stack up accomplishment after accomplishment. Also, his father was part of the D-Day invasion in World War II, and his brother managed the Grateful Dead, yes Dead Heads, you just read that.
After about the first nine miles you start heading up a road toward the mountains. I thought the place was desolate but as I continued to walk up and down the sandy inclines, which circled a small mountain, I was certain I was not in Kansas anymore. I sat down to change boots when Cpl. Jones caught up and he saw my feet. We laughed when he said, after seeing the giant blood filled blisters on feet that his encouragement was halfhearted and really he was saying, oh man this guy is not going to make it.
The cool morning air was violently ripped away from me and replaced with the baking heat of the desert. I emptied and filled up my camel back three times through miles 16 to 20. The water was mainly mental and to maintain a healthy core temperature. Any nourishment I put into my body at this point was not going to help my aching back and cramping legs.
I chugged along slowly until mile 20. Sergeant Major had warned all of us about the two-mile-long inclined sandpit, which came up swiftly after the mile marker. True to his word, this segment of the course was a game-ender for many marchers. Search and Rescue, border patrol and medical personnel patrolled this area constantly. It was not an uncommon sight to see them load up with the body of a broken marcher.
After a grueling hour or so I made it to the long road toward the missile range. My legs had all locked up. My feet were numb from pain. My face was hot to the touch, but I still continued. I wondered how the men on the Bataan Death March felt. They knew that any slowing down or outcry would earn them a bayonet in their ribs or sound blow courtesy of their captors.
I finally made it to the low stone and mortar wall, which separated base housing and I could see the two water towers marking the last mile or so of my trek. At the first water tower I caught up to Sergeant Major, who looked pleased to know all his boys made it to the end. He later let me know he could tell how much pain I was in, because I would shut my mouth long enough to grunt for a few hundred yards or so and then continue with pleasantries. I love to talk, okay, anyone, who knows me will tell you I am loud and I love to learn about people.
I could see the final stretch. It was in site I could hear the beep of the chip tracker signaling the record of my journey through the desert. I saw Cpl. Jones, who yelled, “Good job, Sergeant!”
People were cheering and screaming.
After finishing the race, Sergeant Major and his boys, which I am proud to be, formed a reflexive security perimeter of sorts and laid on our packs next to the finish line. We all just passed out right there. We woke up 30 minutes later to Sergeant Major smiling as he said Marines could sleep anywhere.
After 10 hours spent wandering through the desert, sleep did not come easy when I laid down that night. My lower body ached and all I could think about was, “What if I had to march knowing I may never see my loved ones again, like the prisoners, who walked the 60 miles urged on by the Japanese Imperial Army?”
All I had to do was reach the finish line. The men, who survived the death march in 1942, were loaded onto unmarked boats. Some boats were sunk by U.S. vessels, which had no idea fellow Americans and Filipino troops were aboard.
I finally found sleep and when I woke up I could walk again. I took steps much like a baby gazelle first learning to walk, shaky and knocked-kneed. My limp reminded me of the physical and mental trial I endured, the minuscule taste of pain I shared with the Marines from TECOM, and the memory of the Battling Bastards of Bataan.
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