Death March Challenges Individuals and Brings Unit Together
April 1, 2013
White Sands Missile Range, N.M. -- The 35 miles per hour wind gusts were hard enough to almost stop the team members in their tracks. The loose sand that had been a constant frustration over the last 24 miles was getting lifted up and blown into their eyes and gasping mouths. It had been a grueling trek to get to this point and the last 2.2 miles proved to be the longest and most drawn out journey of their lives.
The 11 members of the 707th Military Intelligence Battalion, 706th Military Intelligence Group's Forward Watch Bataan Detachment put hundreds of miles of marching and months of training to the test when they took part in the 24th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., March 17.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a yearly 26.2 mile march held in the New Mexico desert over harsh terrain and high elevation. It commemorates the original Death March that took place in the Philippines during World War II. The Memorial Death March is highlighted by survivors of that original march who come to White Sands and share their stories with participants.
The desire to test themselves with an extreme physical challenge was a major motivation for the members of the 707th MI Battalion Bataan team.
"Experiencing the Bataan Death March was on my bucket list for a decade," said Maj. Aimee M. Hemery, Forward Watch Bataan Detachment commander. "I wanted the challenge of attempting one of the most strenuous marathons. Serving in the U.S. Army, the actual Bataan Death March was a significant event in our profession. Being half Filipino, it was also a nod to my heritage. Every year, I've had an excuse as to why I couldn't try, this year, I just ran out of excuses."
In order to do something as strenuous as Bataan, everyone had to put in months of training to prepare for it.
"I was looking for a challenge," said Sgt. Benjamin P. Brown, a cryptologic linguist with the 707th MI Battalion. "I wanted to challenge myself and prove to my Soldiers that just because you sit at a desk all day, it doesn't mean that you can't do physical events. It doesn't mean that you can't push your body."
The schedule called for marches six days a week with an ever increasing culmination march every Saturday morning. The start of the training regime began with short marches of only a few miles, but grew to as long as 20 miles at one time over six hours.
"I developed a training program which we all followed," said Sgt. 1st Class Andrew P. Johnson a cryptologic linguist with the 707th MI Battalion. "We gradually increased the distance each week. I think the training gave everyone a good baseline. Throughout the preparation, we were really able to get to know the equipment we were going to be using whether it was our boots or our rucksack."
"Without the training I would never have been able to finish, but I don't think I was prepared for the terrain or the altitude," said Spc. Kenneth C. King, a cryptologic linguist with the 707th MI Battalion. "The mileage on my feet, I was prepared for that, but not for the course itself. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be."
The members of the Forward Watch Bataan Detachment universally agreed that the course was much harder than expected. Every person hit a point where they questioned their ability to finish the event.
"I kept going because I didn't want to let down my battle buddies," said Spc. Ronald C. Robison, a cryptologic linguist with the 707th MI Battalion. "I wanted to keep the team together. I didn't want to fail myself. I've put so many hours into training and walked so many miles that to cut myself short at this point would be a total failure and a complete disappointment."
The toughness of the course humbled each of the participants from the 707th MI Battalion's Bataan Team. Despite their doubts, every person finished the full 26.2 miles. The five man military heavy team even finished fifth place out of 21 teams in their category. Everyone learned just how far they could push themselves and gained valuable insight into what it takes to persevere.
"I got a lot of things out of the experience, but the biggest thing was that I learned a lot about myself," said Sgt. 1st Class Mark E. Johns, a MI systems maintainer/integrator for the 707th MI Battalion. "I learned a lot about my giving up points, and perseverance. It was a refresher of personal breaking points and what's needed, the fortitude and determination that's needed, to keep taking steps and finish. That's what I did from mile 20 to 26, just kept taking steps. I think that stuff is really important because you can't unlock your potential unless you know yourself."
In addition to learning valuable lessons about themselves and how to persevere, the members of the Forward Watch Bataan Detachment gained new bonds of friendship with their fellow team members that will last long after the blisters and the pain of the march have gone. The team members spent a lot of time together driving across the country to New Mexico and back. They camped along the way and at the event to keep the cost of the event low and affordable for everyone.
"I really wasn't expecting this kind of interaction with my team," said Sgt. Erik M. Daniel, a cryptologic linguist with the 707th MI Battalion. "We've spent seven days together in the wild and we were just like brothers. We helped each other and we talked to each other like we had known each other for years."
All of the time together created uncountable opportunities to learn from and bond with one another.
"The whole intention of this event was to create opportunities for the Soldiers in this command and their leadership to just be able to spend time together," said Command Sgt. Maj. Louie R. Castillo II, command sergeant major, 707th MI Battalion. "They would be doing a soldierly activity, yet have the time to talk about experiences, Army and personal. Events like this, they boil you down to your bare essence. There is nothing rawer at that point. When you share that experience with others, it is hard for some of that rawness not to bleed over onto the other people. When that happens, it creates bonds that are unbreakable. If you want that from your team, if you are truly trying to create that amongst your Soldiers, events like this are what make that happen."
"That bonding that took place is invaluable," Castillo continued. "Because when they share that, others are going to say 'I want to do that. I want to do something like that.' The payoff was just far more than the cost of the few miles we marched in training."