WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. (Army News Service, March 29, 2009) -- Director of the Army Staff Lt. Gen. David H. Huntoon Jr. joined more than 5,300 marchers Sunday in the 20th Annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Thousands of marchers stood shoulder to shoulder at the opening ceremoy as Huntoon welcomed them to the event.

"This march is an uncommon marathon because it speaks to all of us about the things that truly matter ... This march is about the selfless service today of our armed forces and our allies, who stand a collective watch around the world for the principles of freedom, protecting our right to assemble here in this peaceful place by their presence in the dangerous places. Finally, this march speaks most importantly to the courage and the sacrifice of the brave Americans and Filipinos who suffered a terrible ordeal of the Bataan Death march in April 1942," Huntoon said.

White Sands Missile Range Commander Brig. Gen. David Mann also welcomed participants to the event.

"Whatever your (reason for participating) you will leave here a changed person," Mann said. He told marchers they would have a greater appreciation for the bravery and dedication of Bataan heroes.

On March 27, Huntoon met with community and business leaders from the Las Cruces and Alamogordo area at White Sands prior to the annual Bataan Memorial Death March. It was his first time to participate in the popular event in the high desert of southern New Mexico which is held every last weekend in March.

Huntoon told the group of about 60 civilians that he was excited to be at White Sands and part of such a huge undertaking. The event commemorates the suffering and sacrifice of tens of thousands of American and Filipino prisoners of war who endured the infamous Bataan Death March after they were surrendered to Japanese forces who attacked the Philippines in December 1942. Thousands died at the hands of their captures, or on Hell ships bound for slave labor camps in China, Korea and Japan.

Every year, many Bataan survivors make their way to White Sands and the public throngs to meet them. Huntoon had just come from meeting some of the Bataan survivors at the event registration center.

"I am really excited," Huntoon said. "(The Bataan Memorial March) sends messages on a number of levels. It's about the values and the warrior ethos of the armed forces, not just the Army. It's about the emphasis we certainly place on physical fitness and resilience in our forces, but, most importantly, it's about those great men ... who suffered the terrible hardship of Bataan, but who have turned that into something remarkable, here at White Sands Missile Range."

Huntoon also thanked the community leaders for their support of the people serving in today's armed forces in this time of change.

"The Army is in the middle of its greatest transformation since the end of World War II, a transformation that is coming squarely on top of White Sands already, with the advent of your Engineer Battalion, and with a brigade combat team ... we are committed to in the future," he said.

Central to the Army's transformation is its shift from a division-centric organization to one centered on brigade combat teams.

Huntoon encouraged several of the attending community leaders who had recently returned from Washington, D.C., seeking support of New Mexico military bases, saying their hard questions were welcomed.

(Tom Fuller writes for the Missile Ranger newspaper at White Sands.)