By Mr. Robert Ramon (ARSOUTH)March 27, 2014
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. -- The morning sun peeked over the mountaintops as more than 25 U.S. Army South Soldiers were an hour into their dismounted trek through the rugged desert terrain. Some moved swiftly wearing only their Army combat uniform, while a few others plodded away at a steady pace, weighted down with loaded rucksacks.
At the start of their 26.2-mile journey, each Soldier high-fived World War II veterans of the harrowing Bataan Death March, along with more than 6,200 other participants who walked or ran the 25th Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. March 23.
"These guys went through hell and back, so there's no reason we can't do 26 miles in their memory," said Staff Sgt. Adam Flores, Army South, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, Operations Company operations noncommissioned officer in charge.
Open to military and civilian teams and individuals in either heavy or light divisions, the Bataan Memorial Death March honored a special group of World War II heroes who were captured by Japanese forces and marched for days in the scorching heat through the Philippine jungles in 1942.
Thirteen World War II Bataan veterans were in attendance to watch the march, including Eugene Schmitz.
Schmitz, a former Army staff sergeant who was a prisoner of war during the actual Bataan Death March in the spring of 1942, said he is proud of the event that honors his fallen brothers.
"A lot of my buddies fell by the wayside and this brings back a lot of old memories," said Schmitz. "I'm proud of this event and how it gets bigger and better every year. It's a good way to keep the memory there."
This was the second time competing in the Bataan MDM for 1st. Lt. Veronica Perez, the Army South exercises medical officer for operations. She plans to take part in the event enough times to match the more than 60 miles marched by the WWII Bataan veterans.
"I feel like I have to dedicate that many miles myself," said Perez. "I'll do it at least three times so I can get past that 60-mile mark."
Thousands of marchers gathered at the starting point in the cool pre-dawn hours. An opening ceremony set the tone, paying tribute to the veterans of the original Bataan march. Some survivors shed tears as a gigantic American flag waved against a backdrop of the Organ Mountains.
Nearing the start time, Staff Sgt. Robert Hogeland, assigned to the U.S. Army South medical directorate and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made final adjustments to his rucksack and reflected on the meaning of the day.
"What I'm doing today is nothing compared to what they went through during the actual march in 1942," said Hogeland. "They didn't have the luxury of changing their socks or having medical assistance along the way, all while watching their brothers die around them. I take that into account when I start to feel sorry for myself and I remind myself that being here is a complete honor and a privilege."
At the age of 96, Schmitz said the painful images of Bataan still flash through his mind, especially those of having to step over the bodies of his fellow Soldiers who perished.
"There's no way to keep from thinking about it," said Schmitz. "We didn't have anything to eat or drink and we had to march in the hot sun. The will to live kept me going."
Stories from Bataan veterans like Schmitz are what keep many of the Soldiers motivated during the long march through the desert terrain.
"The first few miles I'm pumped up and super dedicated about it," said Perez. "In the middle is where motivation starts to drop, so I think that if the Bataan veterans did what they did and sacrificed their lives for this you need to get up, move forward and continue with this race."
After completing the grueling march with a 45-pound rucksack on his back, medical personnel prodded at Hogeland's feet with needles in an effort to drain large blisters as he winced in pain. He used the moment to explain how Soldiers draw on these experiences to prepare for the battlefield.
"There were times when it hurt and you had to keep moving," said Hogeland of his time as an infantryman in Iraq and a combat medic in Afghanistan. "It's events like the Bataan Memorial Death March that you use to keep that edge to where you're pushing your body and your mentality is still hard. If you don't practice doing these things you lose it."
Covered in dust and sweat, Perez, the officer in charge of the Army South Soldiers who took part in the event, completed the course and grabbed a spot among the hundreds of individuals who gathered at the finish line. She proudly cheered out loud as the last member of Army South ran through.
"This is our dedication to those who died," said Perez. "The Army South Soldiers here have the heart, they have the drive and I really appreciate them doing it together."