Death march
Team Sill carries a 110-pound stretcher down a dusty Kansas backcountry road on their way to Pilsen, Kan. The group carried the litter to honor the dedication and heroism of Father Emil Kapaun who carried wounded men many miles during a death march to a Chinese prison camp during the Korean War in 1951. Kapaun was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

Pilsen, Kan. -- Three chaplains, seven chaplain assistants and two family members led by Fort Sill Installation Chaplain (Col.) Matthew Pawlikowski and Staff Sgt. Braden Meyer, 214th Fires Brigade chaplain assistant, completed the three-day, 60-mile Pilsen Pilgrimage, May 30 to June 1 across Kansas from Wichita to Pilsen.

The group carried a 110-pound stretcher to comemmorate the heroism of Army Chaplain Emil Kapaun, a Medal of Honor recipient. Before dying, Kapaun saved thousands of Soldiers during death marches and months of captivity in the Korean War.

The journey began with Catholic Mass at the Church of the Magdalen and a special prayer asking for Father Kapaun's intercession in freeing Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from his five years in

Taliban captivity.
With fresh feet and solemn minds, the pilgrims and Soldiers set off with 22 miles laying between them and their first night's rest in a farmer's field. A slow and steady pace, marked by litter carry team rotations every half mile and rest stops about every five miles kept the fit warriors sound both physically and spiritually. They enjoyed weather conditions better than anyone could wish for: a persistent cloud cover that provided relief from the sun, a gentle northly breeze and mild temperatures.

"We are being sure of changing socks regularly, treating blisters before they get bad, applying sunscreen and watching one another for proper hydration," said Meyer. "We are a team, and will only finish this as a team, nobody can do it alone."

Eating a grandiose spaghetti dinner at the generosity of the McNeill family, who provided their farm for the pilgrim's first night's sleep, the Soldiers of "Team Sill" relaxed in the moonlit shadows of a barn beneath a brilliant starry sky that seemed to clear for the first time that day only for the splendor of the heavens above. The snores of exhausted men and women mixed with coyote howls, hogs' grunts and the bellowing of the nearby cows as they rested for a refreshed vigor to tackle the second day's 22 miles that lay ahead.

"Around this bend and three-quarters of a mile more!" called one member of the group after another between riddles, songs and marching cadence as inspiration for one and all to endure and continue on that second day, sore feet and stiff legs toughening and limbering as they slowly neared every much welcomed rest stop.

There in a park on the second day, the tired and slowing pilgrims sought shade to rest and air their aching, blistered feet while enjoying a lunch provided by the Knights of Columbus. The silent reflection was then broken by a triumphant shout that awoke some from slumber, some from prayer and others from dazed indifference. "Our prayers have been answered!" called event leader Father Matthew Weldon. "The Taliban has released Sergeant Bergdahl!"

Shouts of joy and applause preceded prayers of thanks and a renewed vigor for what was the pilgrimage's second half.

This news seemed to reinvigorate the already motivated masses who moved out with a renewed determination over the next 11 miles of that hot and dusty Saturday afternoon. More and more civilians fell in step with the Soldiers of Team Sill, expressing their gratitude in both the actions and inspiration of the warriors on the march. Pilgrims began to approach in greater numbers throughout that afternoon and the next day asking for a turn carrying the burden, singing cadence or simply seeking additional inspiration to carry on. Veterans of all ages joined in calling cadence or for the strength giving opportunity to tell their stories.

"Father Matt," began a pilgrim approaching Pawlikowski, bearing a load near the end of day two, "thank you for the inspiration and strength you give us all by doing what you are doing."

"The thank you can be from us to you as well," he replied. "We all walk in the spirit of Father Kapaun. He showed us all what it means to work together and the value of a team. This team, not only the Soldiers, but all who are here on the road have formed a great bond and grown as both individuals and teammembers. Nobody here can do it alone, we must always help one another with love and charity in this and everything we do in life."

These words of wisdom were the epitome of the pilgrimage's spirit and the life and works of Kapaun who used every ounce of his strength and faith to serve his men in what has led to his consideration for Catholic sainthood. This spirit was never lost on the pilgrimage with new sources of inspiration always arriving; whether they be the hopes of a rest over the next hill, a family handing out water or popsicles at an intersection or the appearance of American Legion veterans in a WWII era Jeep at the final resting point on the final day.

It was together that all who walked and all who supported marched triumphantly behind a cross held by a 69-year-old Bronze Star recipient combat medic from the Vietnam War who made the trek beside a man in a neck-brace fighting cancer into the town of Pilsen and up to the steps of Kapaun's home church, St. John Nepomucene, a sight that made all pain evaporate in a triumph of spirituality and invigorate the Soldiers of Fort Sill's hopes that this annual event can become an all faith, Armywide event of the chaplain's corps to honor one of its greatest heroes, an event that will make all who take that first step onto a dusty, Kansas road see their faith in both themselves and higher powers in a new light.

Page last updated Thu June 5th, 2014 at 00:00